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Copyright Law : Fair Use

Important: This article contains opinions and information about copyright law. Keep in mind that I am not a lawyer and have not been a lawyer in any past life that I am aware of. If you have specific questions about copyright law you should contact the appropriate legal resources.

Think about it for a minute. If no on could ever make a copy of anything without the copyright owner's permission, then commentary, critical articles, news reporting, research papers and education would be much more difficult. It would be much more difficult, for example, to write a book report without including a quote or two from the author. It would be even more difficult to write a thesis, term paper or research article without including quotes from dozens or even hundreds of sources.

Let's say you were writing an article on copyright and you needed to illustrate a point. You could write your own words (and you should), but you would have a much more powerful article if you included some quotes from reputable sources. It makes it appear that you have done your research and gives you additional authority that you might not otherwise be granted.

In fact, it would be downright silly to require people to get permission to make quotes of this nature. Imagine how difficult it would be if you were writing a term paper which included references from a hundred difficult sources. You would have to track down each author and ask permission. Many times the author has given up the copyright to some other entity, so you would have to do further research on who really owns the copyrights. This could conceivably require more time than writing the paper itself!

To enable you to include quotes of other author's works, an exemption to the United States copyright law was created. This allows for "commentary, parody, news reporting, research and education about copyrighted works without the permission of the author" (from "10 Big Myths about copyright explained", just to illustrate how this works).

So how does this work? Well, some of the more important considerations are:

Your intent in copying the work
How much of the work was copied
As well as any damage to the commercial value of the work.

So, for example, if you were writing an article about the quality of the movie "The Mummy Returns", you could use brief quotes from the film to illustrate your point. However, if you included the entire script on your web site, well, that would be a copyright violation.

In general, it is a good idea to include a reference to the original source material. This serves many purposes, one of the most important being simple common courtesy (in fact, I often like to let the author know I have borrowed some of his words). It also makes it clear that you have invoked fair use, and it gives your readers a source for additional information. Just as important, you improve your own credibility by showing you have done your research and you are not afraid to allow others to see how you came to your conclusions.

To further illustrate, the following would most likely be covered under fair use:

Including brief quotes from published papers for your research papers.
Writing an article on your web site about the Simpsons and including a WAV file quoting Homer. Perhaps something like "Homer's 'Doh' has become famous the world over", with a hyperlink to a WAV file for the "Doh".
Criticizing a book and including a few quotes to illustrate your point.
Criticizing a book and including quotes from other critics to reinforce your point.

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