The Doctrine of Fair Use refers to a small section of the the copyright law that specifies an important limitation of copyright. Fair Use states that a portion of a copyrighted work may be used for the purposes of education, research, criticism, comment, news reporting, and parody (title 17, U.S. Code, Section 107).
Fair Use is essential to higher education as it allows for the dissemination of knowledge in the classroom without having to obtain permission from the copyright holder. The doctrine is written using intentionally flexible language allowing it to be applied to a wide variety of situations. The line between what is fair and what is infringement is not clear, but the doctrine does set out four factors that should be considered in any potential fair use situation:
The Supreme Court has pointed to Fair Use as the check that balances the rights of copyright holders with the right to free expression.
Fair Use is particularly important for students and instructors in higher education as it allows the exchange of knowledge and information in a timely and cost-effective manner. We should not be afraid to exercise our rights to fair use. Though the doctrine is ambiguous, its flexibility is a benefit, not a detriment.
For evidence of this, consider the Georgia State University (GSU) electronic materials case. In April 2008 three academic publishers brought a suit against the officers and employees of GSU claiming that the liberal e-reserve/course reserve policy went beyond fair use into the bounds of copyright infringement. GSU changed its policy in early 2009 to adopt a more conservative interpretation of fair use. The case went forward and an opinion was released on May 11, 2012. The opinion, for the most part, was considered a win for GSU and a defense of fair use in the educational setting.