Fair use for dummies - SmartBrief

Fair use for dummies

4 min read

Marketing Strategy

The Associated Press has made a lot of noise in the past few days with its call for tighter controls on how its content is used online. While no specific measures have been announced, AP chairman William Dean Singleton said the news organization was in the midst of developing rules of engagement for use of its content online.

Singleton is not the first frustrated publisher to try to re-bottle the Web genie. The Web is an open-architecture system. If you want your content on the Web, it’s generally the case that such content will reside on a Web page with an address that can be linked to. There are other ways to post content, but few AP member newspapers are using them. The AP itself has a deal with Google to post AP stories on Google News. If the AP doesn’t want aggregators to link to its stories, it has a funny way of expressing it.

But Singleton’s frustration is understandable. As a group, bloggers possess a dim understanding and/or regard for the existing rules of the road when it comes to what constitutes copyright infringement and plagiarism.  Why should a blogger toiling for free (or almost free) worry about cutting and pasting a few paragraphs of an AP story into his or her blog post. And why not right-click a thumbnail of a picture to illustrate that blog post?

Because to do so without permission may be a copyright violation. As has happened with music, the ease with which online tools permit the capturing and republishing of content serves to mask the reality that content under copyright is protected from unauthorized republication — except under certain circumstances, many of which are contained in what’s called the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law.

The term “fair use” is generally used by bloggers to mean, “fair to me.” But the government has other ideas. While it’s permissible to quote from a work under copyright for purposes of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research,” there are other defining characteristics of what can be called a “fair use”.

For bloggers, the two tests to watch out for are:

  1. The “amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole”
  2. The “effect of the use upon the potential market for or value the copyrighted work.”

So, can a political blogger republish an entire opinion column from the Washington Post in the context of a paragraph-by-paragraph commentary? Not according to the above definition. Can a news blogger republish 400 words of a 500-word AP story, and append his or her own commentary? It would appear not. Yet these are ordinary, everyday blogging techniques.

If it’s the AP’s intent to hit a few unlucky bloggers with recording-industry style lawsuits (and this may very well be what they end up trying) there are steps you can take to make sure you don’t have to lawyer up.

  • Use the word “republish” instead of “copy-and-paste” when mulling whether or not to include something in a blog post — it will make your thinking a little clearer.
  • Don’t republish any picture without permission, unless there is an explicit Creative Commons license.
  • If you quote half or more of a source article, you may no longer be “quoting” — you may be republishing.

The copyright office has its own advice — which I can share without fear because it is in the public domain. “The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission. When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of ‘fair use’ would clearly apply to the situation.”

Image credit, iStock