Copyright for Writers and Bloggers – Part III: Fair Use and Public Domain

What’s fair? Use common sense.

In the first article of this series (Part I: Why Copyright is Important), I discussed the importance of copyrights to authors. In the second article (Part II: Creative Commons), I tell you about the Creative Commons license I use to protect the work on this site.

In this last article of the series, I explain the concept of fair use — or attempt to, anyway — and how it enables you to quote copyrighted works for certain purposes.

CopyrightFair Use

Now here’s a good question. What if you want to use one of my articles on your AdSense-supported Web site? Obviously, that’s in violation of my Creative Commons license. But what if you’re satisfied using only a part of it?

That’s where Fair Use comes into play. Fair use allows you to take a portion of copyright-protected material and use it provided the use meets the definition of “fair” as set forth by the Copyright Act of 1976:

…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.

You can read more about this on Wikipedia.

Fair Use is Common Sense

Fair use, of course, is ruled upon by judges when copyright infringement cases get to court. But you can keep yourself out of court — and be a good member of the blogging community — by using common sense and thinking through the use you have in mind.

For example, suppose you want to use portions of this article as part of a college course you’re teaching about copyright in the Internet age. You could print the article and share it as a handout with your students. Of course, you should also credit me as the author. That’s common courtesy in the writing world.

Or suppose you want to blog about this article as part of your own opinion piece about copyright. You could take a quote from my article and use it to make one of your points — or to present one of my points that you want to argue. (Be gentle, please.) For fair use, you’d have to limit the amount of material you used so it’s only a portion of the entire piece. You should also include my byline and a link back to my article — that’s common courtesy in the blogging world.

Both of these uses would be considered fair. What’s not fair is using a work in a way that would reduce demand or marketability for it — like reproducing it in whole on your Web site without a link back to the original. Or using it to make money by providing content on a site that exists primarily to generate advertising revenue.

Public Domain

There’s one more thing I want to mention here.

If you don’t care about how people use your work, you can release it into the public domain. This essentially means that you’re giving up all rights to it and people can do with it what they want.

If you find a work that’s in the public domain — including classic novels that are out-of-copyright — you can use them pretty much anyway you like. But let your conscience be your guide. Do you really want to claim that that passage from Mark Twain’s Roughing It was really penned by you?

Just remember, there’s nothing in this blog — or in most others — that’s in the public domain. Respect the author’s copyrights, whether they’re a standard copyright “All Rights Reserved” notice, a Creative Common’s license, or something less formal. It’s not just courtesy. It’s the law.

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