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Fair Use Q&A

Posted By Patricia Aufderheide (American U), Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Dear ICA,

I’ve been preparing for a collaborative project with colleagues in a different department, as well as one independent scholar who used to be my grad student. We’re collecting examples of video and images we want to analyze, and we’re a little unsure about our rights to share and store this information for our joint access. It’s all current popular culture so for sure it’s all copyrighted. We’d also like to store copies of some academic and journalistic articles for easy reference among the researchers. Some of these are easily available from our university library, but the independent researcher no longer has access to it, and it’s also a nuisance to keep looking these references up. Do you think we have the right to make those copies and share them with each other? And if so, I need to check with the library about whether it’s OK with them to copy them?

Best wishes,



Dear Deonte,

Collaborative work is increasingly common, so it’s great to understand the copyright issues around it. If you’re working in the U.S., fair use--the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment, if the use you are making of that material is different from the market purpose, and you are using an amount appropriate to the re-use—may apply in various ways. For more information on what types of uses are covered by fair use, take a look at CMSI’s Codes of Best Practices for Fair Use, and look particularly at category four.

If you find that your uses match both the descriptions and the appropriate limitations on fair use in the Code, you can confidently proceed to store and share (within a passworded, reasonably secure shared site) your working material, for as long as you all believe it is relevant to your joint research. This application of the right of fair use applies to all kinds of material, whether it is scholarly, commercial, amateur or anything else.

The same logic applies to a personal archive you may want to create of copyrighted material.

Fair use is your right to use responsibly, without asking permission of copyright holders. In some cases, however, libraries sign commercial licensing agreements with the companies that provide access to scholarly and other material, which might override some kinds of employment of fair use. This is an unfortunate consequence of librarians not always realizing that they can negotiate contracts and that the scholarly requirements of their patrons should be defended and protected. Typically, libraries and the companies they license from have no issue with copying and saving for scholarly research individual articles. In some cases, however, there may be restrictions on “non-consumptive” or “big data” uses that would involve scanning major portions of or even the entire database. Since this kind of research is more and more common, it’s important for scholars to let librarians know that they want their scholarly research interests protected when the libraries enter into contracts.


Patricia Aufderheide for ICA


Got a question? paufder@american.edu

Tags:  June-July 2018 

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