Fair Use and Owner's Rights

Contributor: Jay Gregorio. Lesson ID: 13263

Using any copyrighted material is illegal. However, there are certain situations when you may be allowed to use certain material without permission from the owner. Find out how this is possible!


Communications, Communications

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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You are working on an audio-visual presentation for your school project and need to add background music. With so many options from which to choose, you ended up picking a song from your favorite artist!

The song fits perfectly with your presentation, but there is one problem -- your teacher is very particular with copyright rules.

  • Is this a case of copyright infringement?

The answer really depends on the extent of song usage. It sounds like your presentation will be used for a limited time and for educational purposes only.

If this is the case, all you have to do is acknowledge the owner of the song or its producers! You are not claiming the song as your own or making financial gains from its use; therefore, you are not infringing upon anyone's copyright in this case.

This situation describes fair use.

fair use binder and gavel

  • What is fair use?
  • What situations qualify as fair use?

Let's find out in this lesson!

Let's begin with three different scenarios:

  1. Ben works in a local comedy bar. One of his funniest acts is to recite lines from movies and make fun of the actors and actresses.
  1. Jenny is a researcher at a university. In one of her academic papers, she quoted another author and explained how her work is related to his.
  1. John is a language arts teacher. The book his class is studying is expensive, so he bought one and made several copies for his students.
  • Which of these three situations is allowed without the need for securing permission from the author or copyright owner?

If you answered #1 and #2, you are correct! Let's explain why.

Ben uses parody, a work that ridicules others by copying something well-known in a comedic way. He is not motivated to use the material for commercial gain. The money he earns from his performance is different than earning money directly from selling copyrighted material.

Jenny is permitted to quote another author in her own writing without permission as long as the author is cited correctly and she does not attempt to claim the material as her own.

John, however, has a problem. Although he is technically using the material for educational purposes, this fair usage is limited.

As a teacher, he may give his students a copy of a chapter from a book; an article from a periodical or newspaper; a short story, essay, or poem; or a chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon, or picture from a book, periodical, or newspaper. However, he may never hand out a copy of an entire book.

The reason is obvious -- books are published to make profit. If a book could be made accessible to others simply by buying a single one and making copies, the book industry would not be a profitable one.

What Is Fair Use?

Fair use refers to the ability to make a copy of copyright-protected material under certain circumstances for a limited purpose without getting permission from the copyright owner.

It provides protection for the general public against a claim of infringement.

  • But, which acts are considered legally fair?

The rules or laws for using copyright-protected materials vary from one country to another. In the United States, these actions constitute fair use:

Criticism, Commentary, and News Reporting

A portion of a book or news article may be included in another work if the purpose is to criticize or offer comment on the original material. It is best practice to cite the original material as well.

Research and Scholarship

A researcher or writer of a scholarly work may include another person's research findings in order to make an analysis or draw conclusions. The material must be properly cited.

Nonprofit Educational Use

Teachers may copy portions of a written work and use those copies for a limited time while educating their students.


A person may copy something or someone widely known in order to ridicule the subject or simply provide a comedic take.

To learn more about situations that qualify for fair use, watch What is fair use? from USLawEssentials:

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Some Considerations for Fair Use

  • What is the purpose and extent of the use?

Sometimes, a copyright holder will claim that fair use does not apply to a situation. These copyright infringement cases require a judge to decide whether the usage was transformative.

This means the judge will determine if the copied material was improved or changed in any way to give it new meaning. If the copied material is ruled to only be a copy of the original, then it is likely a violation.

  • How much has been copied?

The opening scenario dealt with copying an entire book; however, it is never fair to lift a substantial amount from the original material.

Copyright infringement can also occur if the material copied, although small in size, is considered to be the most important part of a work.

  • Will it affect the market value of the original work?

All published material has a set market value. If that material is copied in such a way that it depreciates the original's market value, it deprives the author of potential profit. This is not fair use.

  • Is it enough to give an author credit?

Although it is always best practice to properly cite material even when it falls under fair use, this does not always prevent copyright infringement. There are many copyright considerations that must be met.

If you would like to explore copyright and fair use a bit more, check out these resources:

When you are ready, move on to the Got It? section to test your new knowledge on fair use qualifications and considerations!

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