Understanding the “fair use” doctrine

Glenn W. Peterson

As a California resident who has the rights to a certain copyrighted work, you may have obtained the copyright in an attempt to prevent others from using your work without your explicit permission. If someone does decide to reference or otherwise use your copyrighted work without first securing permission, whether he or she is behaving unlawfully in doing so depends on whether the action constituted “fair use.” At Peterson Watts Law Group, LLP, we understand that the fair use doctrine allows people to reference your work in limited circumstances, and we have helped many people determine whether someone’s use of their copyrighted work fell within these fair use parameters.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “fair use” promotes freedom of expression and essentially refers to using a copyrighted work for a limited and “transformative” purpose, which might include briefly referencing, commenting on, criticizing or parodying said work. There is a fine line between using a copyrighted work under fair use terms, however, and using it for some other type of gain.

Furthermore, the definition of “fair use” is inherently vague, and therefore, a court deciding a copyright case will typically consider four factors before making a ruling. First, the court will consider the purpose and character of the use, such as whether the copyrighted material is undergoing commercial use. Second, the court will consider the exact nature of the copyrighted work before issuing a decision.

Third, you can expect that a court will consider just how much of a copyrighted work someone used without permission, and fourth, courts will typically look into whether the unauthorized use of the copyrighted work will affect the work’s overall value. You can find out more about fair use and protecting intellectual property on our webpage.