Copyright and Fair Use

Learn about copyright and fair use issues facing writers today in this free lesson. It's especially important in the age of digital technology.

Using copyrighted material

The copyright symbolThe copyright symbol

As you learned earlier, you generally need to license copyrighted material in order to use it, which often costs money. The exception to this is a rule called fair use. Fair use means you can use copyrighted material without a license only for certain purposes. These include:

You can't just grab a copyrighted photo and use it on your blog because you think it's pretty. However, it probably would be considered fair use if you included the photo in a blog post that commented on and analyzed the photographer's work.

Guidelines for fair use:

Misusing copyrighted material

photo of woman thinking

The concept of fair use can be tricky, especially when it comes to creating work you don't intend to post or publish. For example, if you download a series of graphics from a designer's website and use them to create a PowerPoint template for you and your coworkers (without permission), you could argue that it was never meant for the public and that you didn't mean any harm.

In situations like this, it's important to put yourself in the copyright holder's shoes. It's true that he or she will probably never find out about the template. It's also a relatively minor violation because you're just using the graphics around the office.

But how would you feel if you were a graphic designer and learned that people were using your work (your livelihood) in a way you didn't intend? And you're not getting paid or credited for it!

In short, it's better to do what's right than to risk violating copyright and fair use laws. Even if you think what you're doing is not a big deal, the copyright holder may disagree. If someone requests that you remove his or her materials from your work, you should do so immediately. Otherwise, you can suffer serious consequences, including:

  • Having your website shut down if your work is published online—like on a blog—after the copyright holder complains to your hosting service
  • Getting sued by the copyright holder