Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors

Unfortunately, the only way to get a definitive answer on whether a particular use is a fair use is to have it resolved in federal court. Judges use four factors to resolve fair use disputes, as discussed in detail below. It’s important to understand that these factors are only guidelines that courts are free to adapt to particular situations on a case‑by‑case basis. In other words, a judge has a great deal of freedom when making a fair use determination, so the outcome in any given case can be hard to predict.

The four factors judges consider are:

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

The Transformative Factor: The Purpose and Character of Your Use

In a 1994 case, the Supreme Court emphasized this first factor as being a primary indicator of fair use. At issue is whether the material has been used to help create something new or merely copied verbatim into another work. When taking portions of copyrighted work, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has the material you have taken from the original work been transformed by adding new expression or meaning?
  • Was value added to the original by creating new information, new aesthetics, new insights, and understandings?

In a parody, for example, the parodist transforms the original by holding it up to ridicule. At the same time, a work does not become a parody simply because the author models characters after those found in a famous work. For example, in a case involving the author J.D. Salinger, an author wrote a book in which a character known as Mr. C was allegedly modeled after the character of Holden Caulfield, from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. After Salinger sued, the sequel’s author claimed that his work was a parody, an argument rejected by the district court primarily because the work was not transformative. Aging the character and placing him in present day does not add something new, particularly since the character’s personality remains intact as derived from the original work. (Salinger v. Colting, 641 F. Supp. 2d 250 (S.D. N.Y. 2009).)

Purposes such as scholarship, research, or education may also qualify as transformative uses because the work is the subject of review or commentary.

Determining what is transformative—and the degree of transformation—is often challenging. For example, the creation of a Harry Potter encyclopedia was determined to be “slightly transformative” (because it made the Harry Potter terms and lexicons available in one volume), but this transformative quality was not enough to justify a fair use defense in light of the extensive verbatim use of text from the Harry Potter books. (Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. v. RDR Books, 575 F. Supp. 2d 513 (S.D. N.Y. 2008).)

The Nature of the Copyrighted Work

Because the dissemination of facts or information benefits the public, you have more leeway to copy from factual works such as biographies than you do from fictional works such as plays or novels.

In addition, you will have a stronger case of fair use if you copy the material from a published work than an unpublished work. The scope of fair use is narrower for unpublished works because an author has the right to control the first public appearance of his or her expression.

The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Taken

The less you take, the more likely that your copying will be excused as a fair use. However, even if you take a small portion of a work, your copying will not be a fair use if the portion taken is the “heart” of the work. In other words, you are more likely to run into problems if you take the most memorable aspect of a work. For example, it would probably not be a fair use to copy the opening guitar riff and the words “I can’t get no satisfaction” from the song “Satisfaction.”

This rule — less is more — is not necessarily true in parody cases. A parodist is permitted to borrow quite a bit, even the heart of the original work, in order to conjure up the original work. That’s because, as the Supreme Court has acknowledged, “the heart is also what most readily conjures up the [original] for parody, and it is the heart at which parody takes aim.” (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994).)

The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market

Another important fair use factor is whether your use deprives the copyright owner of income or undermines a new or potential market for the copyrighted work. Depriving a copyright owner of income is very likely to trigger a lawsuit. This is true even if you are not competing directly with the original work. For example, in one case an artist used a copyrighted photograph without permission as the basis for wood sculptures, copying all elements of the photo. The artist earned several hundred thousand dollars selling the sculptures. When the photographer sued, the artist claimed his sculptures were a fair use because the photographer would never have considered making sculptures. The court disagreed, stating that it did not matter whether the photographer had considered making sculptures; what mattered was that a potential market for sculptures of the photograph existed. (Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301 (2d Cir. 1992).)

Again, parody is given a slightly different fair use analysis with regard to the impact on the market. It’s possible that a parody may diminish or even destroy the market value of the original work. That is, the parody may be so good that the public can never take the original work seriously again. Although this may cause a loss of income, it’s not the same type of loss as when an infringer merely appropriates the work. As one judge explained, “The economic effect of a parody with which we are concerned is not its potential to destroy or diminish the market for the original—any bad review can have that effect—but whether it fulfills the demand for the original.” (Fisher v. Dees, 794 F.2d 432 (9th Cir. 1986).)

The “Fifth” Fair Use Factor: Are You Good or Bad?

When you review fair use cases, you may find that they sometimes contradict one another or conflict with the rules expressed in this chapter. Fair use involves subjective judgments and are often affected by factors such as a judge or jury’s personal sense of right or wrong. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has indicated that offensiveness is not a fair use factor, you should be aware that a morally offended judge or jury may rationalize its decision against fair use.

  • Darp

    Hi Rich, I have viewed the YouTube from you organization today. Quite helpful. This topic is a big deal for a company am starting. We might use Fair Use more than any other company that know of. We will soon be creating TV news shows that will be on broadcast TV and internet. These shows often will focus on the news reporting of other news sources, such as CNN and Fox. I have been in the media before and remember the 20 second rule.

    1. Is the 20 second rule dead now?

    2. We will tend to be very critical, somewhat like movie critics or that Fox show News Watch or CNN’s Reliable Sources, but lets say 3 times more critical. The plan is to show clips, hopefully even 1 minute long, then point out the truth and how the current news channels are censoring or fabricating facts about that story. Then have a live TV talk show afterwards in which guests and call in viewers weigh in on whether it is corrupt or legit reporting. The source would be downloading YouTube of the shows or us Tivoing the competition.

    3. Going through the 4 factors, (1) we will be criticizing/fact checking (and sometimes praising) the coverage. Not really parody but very much the purpose of parody. So should be transformative.

    4. on (2) it is supposed to be factual (news report) so good on that.

    5. On (3) The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Taken: this one worries me. In a 30 minute show we might use 20 separate 25 second clips from 4 different news sources (as in CNN, Fox, NBC, ABC) on how those four sources each covered 5 different news stories such as latest unemployment report, etc. and give each an accuracy grade. Would that be acceptable?

    6. (4) The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market, on this one indeed we want to hurt the market for corrupt news. From your site: As one judge explained, “The economic effect of a parody with which we are concerned is not its potential to destroy or diminish the market for the original—any bad review can have that effect—but whether it fulfills the demand for the original.” That sums up our case, we are not a substitute we are critics/watchdogs.

    7. On Good guys? Yes to the public we hope, but what we consider as corrupt news sources will hate our guts for exposing them.

    Rich, do you think we would be OK with that type of programming?

    Thanks in advance

  • PaulGillett

    This is a great overview of the fair use four step test. Thanks!

  • allen

    what if I use 4 lines of a song on over head screen for people in our church to sing that part of the song with me?

  • Teacher

    I am planning on making educational materials to sell to other teachers who will use it as educational materials. Can I use copyrighted images I find online? Thank you to whomever helps me figure this out.