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Copyright at the University of Northern Iowa

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is a legal principle that provides certain limitations on the exclusive rights of copyright holders.  There is no simple test to determine what is “fair use.” Section 107 of the Copyright Act sets forth the four fair use factors which should be assessed in each instance, based on the particular facts of a given case, to determine whether a use is "fair."

What Determines Fair Use?

The following four factors are used to determine if a use is fair:

  1. The purpose of the use (eg. commercial vs. educational)*
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount of the material used (the greater the amount copied, the less likely it is fair use)
  4. The effect of use on the potential market for or value of the work

* Not all uses in an academic context are automatically considered fair use!

Fair Use and Open Culture


Open Culture refers to the idea that knowledge should be shared, developed, and enriched in an "open," collaborative manner, free from restrictive copyright laws. Copyright holders who agree with the "open culture" philosophy typically use a "Creative Commons"  or "Open Source" license or publish in an "Open Access" journal.

Creative Commons is a way of assigning a particular type of copyright license to your creative work or intellectual property so that other people can legally reuse it, but within certain guidelines which you specify.  There are several different CC licenses, but the most common of these allow users to download and edit the copyrighted material as long as attribution is given.

Open Source is computer software for which the source code is freely available.  Open Source Initiative is a non-profit corporation formed to educate about and advocate for the benefits of open source.

Open Access journals allow users to "read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts" of articles held in the journal.

The use of "open culture" materials, as long as the use conforms to the  assigned license, would be considered "fair."

Many sites allow users to search for materials with licenses that allow reuse and remixing (with attribution), or licenses to permit modifications and redistribution of its source code. 

Fair Use in Academia

The Fair Use Doctrine is probably the most important exemption to copyright protections for educational settings, allowing many uses of copyrighted works for the purposes of teaching and research. The complexity of fair use and its importance in academia make it imperative that every member of University of Northern Iowa understands how to make judgements concerning fair use.

Review these Common Scenarios to help you determine whether or not fair use is appropriate.

Tools to Help You Determine Fair Use


  • Fair Use Evaluator:  This tool helps users collect, organize, and document the information they may need to support a fair use claim, and  provides a time-stamped PDF document for the users’ records. Developed by the American Library Association, Office for Information Technology Policy.
  • Exceptions for Instructors Under certain conditions U.S. Copyright Law provides for the educational use of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder. To find out if your intended use meets the requirements set out in the law, use this free online tool. 
  • Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study: Society of American Archivists links to this statement by the Visual Resource Association (VRA), outlining six acceptable uses of copyrighted images.
  • Digital Image Rights Computator:  This tool is used to assist users "in assessing the intellectual property status of a specific image documenting a work of art, a designed object, or a portion of the built environment."
  • Code of Best Practices of Fair Use for Media Literacy Education:  This is a November 2008 code of best practices document designed to help educators using media literacy concepts and techniques to interpret the copyright doctrine of fair use.
  • Code of Best Practices of Fair Use for Online Videos: This is a June 2008 document designed to help "creators, online providers, copyright holders and other interested in the making of online video to interpret the copyright doctrine of fair use."