Fair Use Today

Peter Jaszi

Editor’s Note: In order to get the most out the lesson plans presented in this book, it is important to have an up-to-date understanding of fair use and copyright. How fair use is considered by the courts has changed substantially over time. Presenting outdated cases and superseded precedents as guiding examples will have an unwarranted chilling effect on students’ fair use rights.  This excellent essay by Peter Jaszi is adapted from the appendix of the Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in the Visual Arts. Here we have reproduced it at the front of the book because it contains foundational knowledge for teaching about fair use in today’s world.


Some background information about the fair use doctrine, seen in the context of copyright law and its objectives, may be helpful in thinking about how to use the Code. The goal of US copyright law is to promote the progress of knowledge and culture. Its best-known feature is protection of owners’ rights. But copying, quoting, recontextualizing, and reusing existing cultural material can be critically important to creating and spreading knowledge and culture.

That is why there is a social bargain at the heart of copyright law. That bargain is: Our society offers creators some exclusive rights in copyrighted works, to encourage them to produce culture. The compensation that creators receive from exploiting their copyrights is important as an incentive to this ultimate end; it is not an end in itself. Society also limits copyright in important ways, so that the primary intended beneficiary of copyright law—the public—can benefit from those works. Most basically, copyright lasts for a limited time, and then works enter the public domain, where they are free for use by all. Other limitations allow the use of works protected by copyright without permission or payment to the copyright owner. Without those uses, creative and scholarly activities would suffer, and the public would lose out on important new work that builds on the past.

As Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 provides, “fair use of a copyright work . . . is not an infringement of copyright.”2  Fair use is the most important limit on copyright monopoly rights. It has been part of US copyright law for more than 170 years. Where it applies, fair use is a right and not a mere privilege. Because copyright law describes fair use in general terms, the fair use doctrine can adjust to evolving circumstances, and the fact that it is asserted procedurally as an affirmative defense should not affect this characterization. As a comparison, for example, freedom of expression is a right that is also asserted as a defense in defamation cases. Rather than following a formula, lawyers and judges assess whether a particular use of copyrighted material is “fair” according to an “equitable rule of reason.” This means taking into account all facts and circumstances to decide if an unlicensed use of copyrighted material generates social or cultural benefits greater than the cost imposed on the copyright owner.

Judicial decisions on fair use can give practitioners strong positive guidance about how to apply the doctrine. In 1976, Congress inscribed the venerable judge-made rule into Section 107, codifying the familiar “four factors.” It also included a preamble, listing examples of uses that were eligible to be treated as fair use. Notably, some of these (like “criticism, comment, . . . teaching, scholarship, [and] research”) are core activities of many visual arts professionals. There then ensued a decade of generally cautious and even conservative court opinions, calling into question the real utility of the doctrine for those who make and comment on culture.

Since the early 1990s, however, the case law has taken a dramatic turn. By 2002, when the US Supreme Court affirmed the strong connection between fair use and First Amendment freedom of expression in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003), the doctrinal landscape already had changed dramatically. In the intervening time, the courts had indicated that a generally critical consideration in evaluating the fair use factors is whether the use can be considered “transformative”—whether it “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character,” as the Supreme Court put it in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994). Since then, cases have reinforced the notion that for a use to be considered “transformative,” it need not—as, in fact, it usually does not—entail a literal modification or revision of the original material. Instead, it is crucial that it has put that material in a new context where it performs a new function. Thus, the reproduction of an image to illustrate the argument of a scholarly article could qualify, just as could the use of copyrighted material in new art.

Where a use is transformative, the first statutory factor (looking to “purpose and character”) will weigh strongly in favor of fair use even if the new use is “commercial” in character. The second factor (which implicates the nature of the work used) tends to favor transformative uses as well. This factor functions to provide certain imaginative works extra protection from unfair exploitation; however, this concern loses much of its force when they are used for new purposes. Moreover, where the third factor is concerned, courts will measure the appropriateness of the amount of copyrighted material used against the transformative purpose of that use; where visual imagery is concerned, use of an entire work often will qualify, as in Nunez v. Caribbean Intl News Corp., 235 F.3d 18 (1st Cir. 2000).

And crucially, a transformative use is likely to weigh in favor of fair use under the fourth factor (directed toward the market harm suffered by the copyright holder), because (as increasing numbers of courts have recognized) copyright owners are not entitled to control the “transformative markets” for their works, as exemplified by Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 448 F.3d 605 (2d Cir. 2006), which involved graphic art reproduced to illustrate a historical narrative. The unlicensed use of reference images (so-called “thumbnails”) in internet search engines has been found to be fair on this basis, an example being Perfect 10, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007). But, conversely, the transformativeness test also safeguards rights holders from the invasion of commercially significant markets or potential markets that they are entitled to exploit. When a use merely substitutes for an authorized use in a copyright owner’s core market, for example, the photographic image of a statue chosen and used for its visual appeal on a postage stamp in Gaylord v. United States, 595 F.3d 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2010), it is less likely to be considered fair.

Where a use is deemed nontransformative, the market-harm test of factor four is likely to play a more important role in the analysis. Thus, for example, a textbook author’s failure to license summaries of various artists’ careers adopted from a proprietary website could weigh against a fair use finding. Alternatively, the reproduction of an “orphan” work that is not being actively exploited might be deemed fair on the same grounds.

As might be expected, these developments in the case law have been questioned by some, who have criticized the transformativeness test as too subjective in its application, too harsh (where the interests of copyright owners are concerned) in effect, and somehow inconsistent with the fact that copyright owners are granted an “exclusive right” to “prepare derivative works” under Section 106(2) of the Copyright Act. Only time may tell how well justified some of these objections are. But, as to the last, it is worth noting that all the exclusive rights granted in Section 106 are qualified. It is not clear why the derivative work right should be any less subject to fair use than, for example, the rights of “reproduction,” “distribution,” or “performance.”

Certainly, controversy remains about how fair use should apply to so-called appropriation art, the case law concerning which was discussed at some length in the Issues Report that helped frame the issues addressed in this Code. The particular application of the transformativeness test in Cariou v. Prince, 714 F.3d 694 (2d Cir. 2013), involving new works created by defendant’s overpainting of photographs taken from plaintiff’s book, continues to attract critics as well as defenders. This Code offers a balanced approach to invoking fair use in this area of visual arts practice, as in others.

In general, there has never been as strong a general judicial consensus about the nature of the fair use doctrine as the one that exists today. In making fair use decisions about issues such as those that confront the visual arts community, judges today generally focus, in effect, on two key analytic questions:

  • Did the use “transform” the copyrighted material by using it for a purpose significantly different from that of the original, or did it do no more than provide consumers with a “substitute” for the original?
  • Was the material taken appropriate in kind and amount, considering the nature of both the copyrighted work and the use?

These two questions effectively collapse the four factors. The first question contains the first two factors—the purpose of the use and nature of the work used. Thus, for example, the unpublished nature of a work could weigh against fair use if a deceased artist’s copyrighted private letters were being used for gratuitous and sensational effect, but it should have little bearing if the use were for an academic (and thus transformative) purpose. The second question rephrases the third factor, which looks to the quantity and quality of the material used. Both of the key questions touch on the fourth factor, focusing on economic harm the use will cause to the owner’s relevant market. This is because courts have made it clear that substitutional harm is what matters in applying factor four. Thus, if Artist B’s “parodies’’ of Artist A’s works actually supplant purchases of Artist A’s works, that might result in such harm, but if Artist A’s work, as a result, loses popularity or marketability, that would not.

In other words, if the answer to these two questions is clearly in the affirmative, a court is likely to find a use fair, even if the work is used in its entirety. Where that is the case, a rights holder also might conclude that it ought not to challenge the use.

Court decisions also show that it can be helpful to the fair use argument for the user to explain the new function, purpose, or context of the use. The case law further suggests that the more coherent an account the user can give of how and why it was appropriate to employ the copyrighted work, the easier it is for judges to understand if and whether and why the use would be considered transformative.

The flexibility of fair use can lead users to wish for clearer rules or brighter lines. But the flexibility of fair use is its strength. Courts have emphasized that fair use analysis is fact- and situation-specific. In most cases, however, it is also quite predictable. Moreover, it can be made more so. Even without case law specifically addressing a use, judges and lawyers consider expectations and practice— whether the user acted reasonably and in good faith in light of standards of accepted practice in a particular field. One way of creating better understanding of what fair use permits is, therefore, to document the considered attitudes and best practices of a professional community.

Finally, it is worth noting that legal experts disagree on how much a user’s show of good faith adds to a claim of fair use—although, of course, it cannot hurt. Nevertheless, the members of the visual arts community who met to devise the consensus reflected in the Code believed in its importance. Thus, the Code reflects some widely and strongly held community values not tied to language of the Copyright Act, in particular the importance of attribution, and of safeguarding noncopyright interests such as privacy and cultural sensitivities (including those of indigenous communities).

  1. Peter Jaszi wrote this section and is solely responsible for it.
  2. § 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use
    • Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—
      1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
      2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
      3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
      4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
    • The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.


Fair Use in the Visual Arts: Lesson Plans for Librarians Copyright © 2018 by Peter Jaszi. All Rights Reserved.

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