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We’re All Fair Users Now

photo of Bernie Sanders wearing mittens seated in chair being lifted up into blue sky by huge multicolored bunch of balloons
Today kicks off Fair Use Week, an annual celebration of the important doctrine of fair use/fair dealing. Previously, ARL has debunked common fair use myths, and reviewed the fundamentals of fair use. This year, in acknowledgement that our world has changed since February 2020, we highlight three ways that fair use has allowed us to move our lives online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, just a little background. Fair use is an important right that is built into the US Copyright Act and allows the public to use copyrighted materials without asking for permission. Described by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a built-in accommodation to the First Amendment, fair use balances the exclusive rights of authors to reproduce and distribute their works with the rights of users to borrow, lend, and transfer those works. This balance is critical to the constitutional purpose of copyright: to promote the progress of science and useful arts. Scholarship builds on previous work, and researchers and educators rely on the fair use doctrine to create high-quality learning objects and to incorporate the full breadth of prior work into their current inquiries. Artists in all disciplines rely on fair use to build upon others’ work in their own creations. Ok, on to the examples.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching and learning have mostly moved online, but even before COVID-19 educators and learners could rely on fair use for online education. To support students, librarians, and open educators, American University College of Law released a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources. Developed in consultation with practitioners and other experts, the code includes principles for how fair use may apply in common open education scenarios. For more on open educational resources (OER) this week, check out the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) webinar, “Foundations of OER, on Wednesday, February 24. And don’t miss the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) webinar, “Implementing the CARL Copyright OER for University Instructors and Staff on Campus,” on Thursday, February 25.

Accessibility

HathiTrust Digital Library is a prominent example of the benefits to libraries and society from courts deciding in favor of fair use in technology cases. Hathi relies on fair use for two key functions: (1) providing accessible texts for people who are print-disabled and (2) allowing access to a database of scanned books that can be used for nonconsumptive purposes like text and data mining. In determining that providing access to works for people with print disabilities is a fair use, courts cited the rationale behind the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the legislative history of the Copyright Act itself.

Explosion of Creativity

During the pandemic, we have seen a proliferation of online creativity, sharing, and access, such as art museums offering virtual access, online performances, or the ubiquitous Bernie mittens meme. Noncommercial expressions of creativity like these rely on fair use. Read this blog post, “Copyright for Meme-Makers,” by our colleagues at Public Knowledge, then apply the four-part test to the Bernie meme. Based on your analysis, is it fair use? Why or why not?

Fair use is intentionally flexible to respond to new technologies and ways of working. But it’s important to note that these activities were all possible even before COVID-19. Fair use is meant to be used, and we hope this post illustrates its necessity.

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