Guide to Fair Use Principles in the Digital Publishing Age

By Lillian Williams

OK, so we know that advanced digital technology makes it easy for everyone to publish these days, whether on a networking site, blog, YouTube, or some other venue.

But here are some key questions, if you’re in the publishing sphere.

Do you ever have the right to use another’s copyrighted work, without permission, or licensing?

Can you swipe an image from a website, for example, without permission?  Does the publisher have a right to compensation?

What is the so-called fair use doctrine?  Does that doctrine give you the right to use a portion of another’s creation?

I recommend that you review the Set of Principles for Fair Use In Journalism, released earlier this month by the Center for Social Media at American University’s School of Communication. This document has been endorsed by organizations including the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication; Association of Alternative Newsmedia; Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, Poynter Institute, and others. The guide walks you through the confusing network of copyright issues.

Explained in the comprehensive  media law book by Don R. Pember and Clay Calvert, the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law permits some usage of another’s copyrighted original work, under limited circumstances.

“Use of small amounts of copyrighted material in a news article or broadcast is usually regarded as a fair use,” write Pember and Clay. “But this kind of use has become more problematic in recent years with the growth of blogs and other Web-generated communication.”

As Pember and Calvert point out, U.S. courts consider four factors when trying to determine whether fair use of a copyright work has been violated: purpose; nature of the copyrighted work; how much was copied, and impact on potential value or sale of the original work.

That’s where the Set of Principles for Fair Use in Journalism, comes in handy.  This guide lays out common situations confronted by journalists (and others) in the thorny copyright maze.

Read the entire set of principles here.

In yet another resource, Poynter Institute offers a new online course, titled Copyright Law and Fair Use for Journalists.  This short, online course is free of charge while in the beta testing stage.  As described on Poynter’s website,  it covers the following four areas:

  • “What the fair use doctrine is and how it dovetails with copyright law?”
  • “How you can legally publish content created by others under the doctrine of fair use?”
  • “How to avoid pitfalls through an understanding of how copyright law protects content?”
  • “How fair use and copyright law apply to content published online and in social media?”

Who should take this course? Poynter says it’s designed for a panoply of users: those who post to social media sites; online, print and broadcast publishers; bloggers; editors and content creators, as well as students and educators.

Register for the course here.  See a list of other Poynter Institute online courses (some of which are free), and webinars, here.  Whether you are a blogger,  freelancer,  or a staffer at a nonprofit,  these courses and webinars could be helpful.

It’s your turn.  If you’ve had difficulty with copyright issues, or have reviewed the aforementioned set of principles on fair use, we’d like to hear from you.  Leave your comments below.

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