The best way to understand the flexible principle of fair use is to review actual cases decided by the courts. Below are summaries of a variety of fair use cases.
Cases Involving Text
- Fair use. Publisher Larry Flynt made disparaging statements about the Reverend Jerry Falwell on one page of Hustler magazine. Rev. Falwell made several hundred thousand copies of the page and distributed them as part of a fund-raising effort. Important factors: Rev. Falwell’s copying did not diminish the sales of the magazine (since it was already off the market) and would not adversely affect the marketability of back issues. (Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Moral Majority, Inc., 606 F.Supp. 1526 (C.D. Cal., 1985).)
- Fair use. A biographer of Richard Wright quoted from six unpublished letters and ten unpublished journal entries by Wright. Important factors: No more than 1% of Wright’s unpublished letters were copied and the purpose was informational. (Wright v. Warner Books, Inc., 953 F.2d 731 (2d Cir. 1991).)
- Fair use (mostly). In a case alleging 75 instances of infringement in an educational setting, a district court, proposing a fair use standard based on less than 10% of a book, determined that 70 instances were not infringing. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the 10% standard and emphasized the importance of a flexible case-by-case fair use analysis. The case was remanded to the district court which, in 2016, found the majority of instances to be fair use. Important factors: On remand, the second factor (the scholarly nature of the work) and the fourth factor (impact of the use on the market value) weighed in favor of fair use. Cambridge University Press v. Patton, 769 F.3d 1232 (11th Cir. Ga. 2014).
- Fair use. A district court ruled that libraries that provided a search engine company (Google) with books to scan were protected by fair use when the libraries later used the resulting digital scans for three purposes: preservation, a full-text search engine, and electronic access for disabled patrons who could not read the print versions. On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed fair use as to the full-text database (“a quintessentially transformative use”) and as to use of text in formats accessible to print-disabled people (although not a transformative use, it is still considered a fair use based on the Betamax decision), but remanded the issue of fair use for long-term preservation of books. Important factors: As to the full-text database and disabled-access, the Court of Appeals did not find any evidence of financial harm. The Author’s Guild v. Hathitrust, 755 F.3d 87 (2d Cir. 2014).
- Fair use. A news organization (Bloomberg) tapped into an earnings report phone call made by executives of a foreign corporation (Swatch) to 132 analysts, and posted a recording and transcript of the phone call. Important factors: Bloomberg’s publication of the call was analogous to news reporting (publication of such calls is mandatory for American corporations). Because of that newsworthy purpose, a transformative use was not required. Further, the posting of the entire recording was necessary to fulfill this newsworthy purpose. The Second Circuit stated, “Bloomberg’s overriding purpose here was not to “scoop” Swatch or “supplant the copyright holder’s commercially valuable right of first publication,” but rather simply to deliver newsworthy financial information to American investors and analysts.” Swatch Grp. Mgmt. Servs. Ltd. v. Bloomberg L.P. 742 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2014).
- Fair use. The black comedy, Hand to God, features the famed Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” The routine is spoken by a repressed character, whose hand puppet persona mocks him for pretending to be the author of the routine. Important factors: Though the use of the routine in the movie and play both elicit laughs, the play’s usage is transformative because the audience must be aware of the original in order to “get the joke.” TCA Television Corp. v. McCollum, No. 15 Civ. 4325 (S.D. N.Y. Dec. 17, 2105).
- Not a fair use. The Nation magazine published excerpts from ex-President Gerald Ford’s unpublished memoirs. The publication in The Nation was made several weeks prior to the date Mr. Ford’s book was to be serialized in another magazine. Important factors: The Nation’s copying seriously damaged the marketability of Mr. Ford’s serialization rights. (Harper & Row v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539 (1985).)
- Not a fair use. A biographer paraphrased large portions of unpublished letters written by the famed author J.D. Salinger. Although people could read these letters at a university library, Salinger had never authorized their reproduction. In other words, the first time that the general public would see these letters was in their paraphrased form in the biography. Salinger successfully sued to prevent publication. Important factors: The letters were unpublished and were the “backbone” of the biography—so much so that without the letters the resulting biography was unsuccessful. In other words, the letters may have been taken more as a means of capitalizing on the interest in Salinger than in providing a critical study of the author. (Salinger v. Random House, 811 F.2d 90 (2d Cir. 1987).)
- Not a fair use. An author copied more than half of an unpublished manuscript to prove that someone was involved in the overthrow of the Iranian government. Important factors: A substantial portion was taken (half of the work) and the work had not been published yet. (Love v. Kwitny, 772 F.Supp. 1367 (S.D. N.Y., 1989).)
- Not a fair use. A company published a book entitled Welcome to Twin Peaks: A Complete Guide to Who’s Who and What’s What, containing direct quotations and paraphrases from the television show Twin Peaks, as well as detailed descriptions of plots, characters, and setting. Important factors: The amount of the material taken was substantial and the publication adversely affected the potential market for authorized books about the program. (Twin Peaks v. Publications Int’l, Ltd., 996 F.2d 1366 (2d Cir. 1993).)
- Not a fair use. A company published a book of trivia questions about the events and characters of the Seinfeld television series. The book included questions based upon events and characters in 84 Seinfeld episodes and used actual dialog from the show in 41 of the book’s questions. Important factors: As in the Twin Peaks case, the book affected the owner’s right to make derivative Seinfeld works such as trivia books. (Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc. v. Carol Publ. Group, 150 F.3d 132 (2d Cir. 1998).)
- Not a fair use. 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 The 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. The court determined that fair use would not succeed as a defense and granted Salinger’s request for a preliminary injunction. (The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the fair use analysis but reversed the case regarding the standard used for the preliminary injunction.) Important factors: Aging the character and placing him in the 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).)
- Not a fair use. Although 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), this transformative quality was not enough to justify a fair use defense. Important factors: An important factor in the court’s decision was 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).)
Artwork, Visual Arts, and Audiovisual Cases
- Fair use. In a lawsuit commonly known as the Betamax case, the Supreme Court determined that the home videotaping of a television broadcast was a fair use. This was one of the few occasions when copying a complete work (for example, a complete episode of the Kojak television show) was accepted as a fair use. Evidence indicated that most viewers were “time-shifting” (taping in order to watch later) and not “library building” (collecting the videos in order to build a video library). Important factors: The Supreme Court reasoned that the “delayed” system of viewing did not deprive the copyright owners of revenue. (Universal City Studios v. Sony Corp., 464 U.S. 417 (1984).)
- Fair use. The makers of a movie biography of Muhammad Ali used 41 seconds from a boxing match film in their biography. Important factors: A small portion of film was taken and the purpose was informational. (Monster Communications, Inc. v. Turner Broadcasting Sys. Inc., 935 F.Supp. 490 (S.D. N.Y., 1996).)
- Fair use. A search engine’s practice of creating small reproductions (“thumbnails”) of images and placing them on its own website (known as “inlining”) did not undermine the potential market for the sale or licensing of those images. Important factors: The thumbnails were much smaller and of much poorer quality than the original photos and served to help the public access the images by indexing them. (Kelly v. Arriba-Soft, 336 F.3d. 811 (9th Cir. 2003).)
- Fair use. It was a fair use, not an infringement, to reproduce Grateful Dead concert posters within a book. Important factors: The Second Circuit focused on the fact that the posters were reduced to thumbnail size and reproduced within the context of a timeline. (Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 448 F.3d 605 (2d Cir. 2006).)
- Fair use. A Google search engine did not infringe a subscription-only website (featuring nude models) by reproducing thumbnails. Important factors: The court of appeals aligned this case with Kelly v. Arriba-Soft (above), which also permitted thumbnails under fair use principles. (Perfect 10, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007).)
- Fair use. A publisher of monster magazines from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s sued the creator and publisher of a book, Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos. (Gogos created covers for the magazines.) The book publisher had obtained licenses from the artist directly, but not from the magazine publisher who claimed copyright under work-made-for-hire principles. The district court determined that the use was transformative. Important factors: The use was for a biography/retrospective of the artist, not simply a series of covers of magazines devoted to movie monsters. In addition, the magazines were no longer in print, and the covers amounted to only one page of the magazine, not the “heart” of the magazine. (Warren Publishing Co. v. Spurlock d/b/a Vanguard Productions, 645 F.Supp.2d 402, (E.D. Pa., 2009).)
- Fair use. A seven-second clip from the Ed Sullivan TV show was used in a staged musical history (The Jersey Boys) based on the career of the musical group, the Four Seasons. Important factors: The use was transformative. (“Being selected by Ed Sullivan to perform on his show was evidence of the band’s enduring prominence in American music,” the judge wrote in the ruling. “By using it as a biographical anchor, [the defendant] put the clip to its own transformative ends.”) Further, the use caused no financial harm to the copyright owners of the show. SOFA Entertainment, Inc. v. Dodger Productions, Inc., No. 2:08-cv-02616 (9th Cir. Mar. 11, 2013).
- Fair use. The painter, Richard Prince, created a collage using—in one collage—35 images from a photographer’s book. The artist also used 28 of the photos in 29 additional paintings. In some instances the full photograph was used while in others, only the main subject of the photo was used. Important factors: The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that to qualify as a transformative use, Prince’s work did not have to comment on the original photographer’s work (or on popular culture). The Court of Appeals concluded that 25 of Prince’s artworks qualified as fair use and remanded the case to determine the status of the remaining five artworks. Cariou v. Prince, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, No. 11-1197.
- Fair use. The re-creation of three scenes from the film Deep Throat was a fair use when made for a biographical film about actress Linda Lovelace. Important factors: The re-created scenes were used in a non-pornographic film biography (with no nudity) about an actress who ultimately railed against pornography. This use illustrated a strong transformative purpose and demonstrated that the copyright owner of Deep Throat would be unlikely to lose revenue from this non-pornographic use. Arrow Productions, LTD v. The Weinstein Company LLC, 2014 WL 4211350 (S.D. N.Y. Aug. 25, 2014).
- Fair Use. A modified photo of a Wisconsin mayor was reproduced on a Tshirt and used to raise money for an event opposed by the mayor. Important factors: The Seventh Circuit was primarily persuaded by the level of alteration—the photo was posterized, background removed, text added, and a lime green outline featuring the mayor’s smile remained. The resulting image of the mayor, the court stated, “can’t be copyrighted.” Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation LLC, 766 F.3d 756 (7th Cir. 2014).
- Fair use. A TV clipping database made it possible for users to search news broadcasts using keywords, then view a portion of the curated news clip containing those keywords. The court determined that the storage, indexing, excerpting, and reproduction of the clips was a fair use. Important factors: The district court emphasized the purpose of the database, which was unique and transformative. The court also dismissed the “very small possible impact” of lost revenues. Fox News v. TVEYES, Inc., 43 F. Supp. 3d 379 (S.D. N.Y. 2014).
- Fair use. A disgruntled former commercial tenant (Chevaldina) used an unflattering photo of her former landlord (Katz) in 25 critical blog posts. Katz purchased the copyright in the photo and sued Chevaldina for infringement. Important factors: The use was considered noncommercial, and transformative because, “in the context of the blog post’s surrounding commentary, Chevaldina used Katz’s purportedly ‘ugly’ and ‘compromising’ appearance to ridicule and satirize his character.” Katz v. Chevaldina, No. 14-14525 (11th Cir. 2015).
- Fair use. In a battle over the use of viral videos, a humor program, Equals Three, reproduced viral videos from another source, Jukin Video, and commented on them, often reproducing the clips in their entirety. Important factors: The court determined that in the case of 18 of the 19 videos, Equals Three used no more than necessary of each video for purposes of its commentary; and that the jokes and commentary added something new to the viral videos. Equals Three, LLC v. Jukin Media, Inc., 14-09041 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 13, 2015).
- Fair use. An author created a parody of the surfer-thriller Point Break. The court found the work to be sufficiently transformative to justify fair use of the underlying movie materials. At issue in this case was the more novel question of whether the resulting parody could itself be protected under copyright. Important factors: The Second Circuit held that if the author of the unauthorized work provides sufficient original material and is otherwise qualified under fair use rules, the resulting work will be protected under copyright. Keeling v. Hars, No. 13-694 (2d Cir. 2015).
- Not a fair use. A television news program copied one minute and 15 seconds from a 72-minute Charlie Chaplin film and used it in a news report about Chaplin’s death. Important factors: The court felt that the portions taken were substantial and part of the “heart” of the film. (Roy Export Co. Estab. of Vaduz v. Columbia Broadcasting Sys., Inc., 672 F.2d 1095, 1100 (2d Cir. 1982).)
- Not a fair use. A television station’s news broadcast used 30 seconds from a four-minute copyrighted videotape of the 1992 Los Angeles beating of Reginald Denny. Important factors: The use was commercial, took the heart of the work, and affected the copyright owner’s ability to market the video. (Los Angeles News Service v. KCAL-TV Channel 9, 108 F.3d 1119 (9th Cir. 1997).)
- Not a fair use. A poster of a “church quilt” was used in the background of a television series for 27 seconds. Important factors: The court was influenced by the prominence of the poster, its thematic importance for the set decoration of a church, and the fact that it was a conventional practice to license such works for use in television programs. (Ringgold v. Black Entertainment Television, Inc., 126 F.3d 70 (2d Cir. 1997).)
- Not a fair use. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) licensed the use of a photograph of the Korean War veterans’ memorial sculpture for a postage stamp, but failed to obtain permission from the sculptor who held copyright in the underlying three-dimensional work. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the use of the underlying sculpture depicted in the photograph was not permitted under fair use principles. Important factors: It was not enough to transfer the work from three dimensions to two dimensions (despite the creative use of photography and snow in conjunction with the photos). (Gaylord v. United States, 595 F.3d 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2010).)
- Fair use. The Washington Post used three brief quotations from Church of Scientology texts posted on the Internet. Important factors: Only a small portion of the work was excerpted and the purpose was for news commentary. (Religious Technology Center v. Pagliarina, 908 F.Supp. 1353 (E.D. Va., 1995).)
- Fair use. Displaying a cached website in search engine results is a fair use and not an infringement. A “cache” refers to the temporary storage of an archival copy—often a copy of an image of part or all of a website. With cached technology it is possible to search Web pages that the website owner has permanently removed from display. An attorney/author sued Google when the company’s cached search results provided end users with copies of copyrighted works. The court held that Google did not infringe. Important factors: Google was considered passive in the activity—users chose whether to view the cached link. In addition, Google had an implied license to cache Web pages since owners of websites have the ability to turn on or turn off the caching of their sites using tags and code. In this case, the attorney/author knew of this ability and failed to turn off caching, making his claim against Google appear to be manufactured. (Field v. Google Inc., 412 F.Supp.2d 1106 (D. Nev., 2006).)
- Fair use. A real estate blog copied the first eight sentences from a newspaper article. Important factors. The blogger had copied only eight sentences and had not copied the “valuable” section (the commentary included with the article), and the court did not believe that the copying would affect the market for the article (the third and fourth fair use factors). Righthaven LLC v. Realty One Group, Inc., No. 2:10-cv-LRH-PAL, 2010 WL 4115413 (D. Nev., October 19, 2010).
- Fair use. A nonprofit organization posted a newspaper article about police discrimination on its website. The newspaper assigned its right in the article to a third party, Righthaven, which filed the lawsuit. Important factors. The court’s reasoning was influenced by the fact that Righthaven had acquired the copyright and was not in the newspaper business (it appeared to be in the “litigation business”). For that reason, the court reasoned that the nonprofit’s use was transformative because its purpose was to educate the public about immigration issues, whereas Righthaven had no such purpose for the article (because it was not in the news business). And also, because Righthaven was not in the news business, it could show no harm from the defendant’s dissemination of the article. Righthaven LLC v. JAMA, No. 2:2010-cv-01322, 2011 WL 1541613 (D. Nev., April 22, 2011).
- Fair use. A user of an online political forum posted a five-sentence excerpt from a newspaper article with a link back to the newspaper’s website. Important factors: The use was quantitatively small and did not cause the newspaper financial harm. In addition, the online political forum was permitted to use the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Righthaven LLC v. Democratic Underground, No. 2:10-cv-01356-RLH (GWF).
- Fair use. Google made digital copies of millions of books submitted to it by libraries, scanned them and made them available to search through its Google Books service, so that users could—for free—identify relevant words, terms, or snippets from the scanned text. Google also allowed participating libraries to retain the copies they submitted. Important factors: Google’s digitization was deemed a transformative use because it provided limited information about the books without allowing users more complete access to the works. Authors Guild v. Google, Inc., No. 13-4829 (2d Cir. 2015).
- Not a fair use. Several individuals without church permission posted entire publications of the Church of Scientology on the Internet. Important factors: Fair use is intended to permit the borrowing of portions of a work, not complete works. (Religious Technology Center v. Lerma, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1569 (E.D. Va., 1996).)
- Fair use. A person running for political office used 15 seconds of his opponent’s campaign song in a political ad. Important factors: A small portion of the song was used and the use was for purposes of political debate. (Keep Thomson Governor Comm. v. Citizens for Gallen Comm., 457 F.Supp. 957 (D. N.H., 1978).)
- Fair use. A television film crew, covering an Italian festival in Manhattan, recorded a band playing a portion of a copyrighted song “Dove sta Zaza.” The music was replayed during a news broadcast. Important factors: Only a portion of the song was used, it was incidental to the news event, and it did not result in any actual damage to the composer or to the market for the work. (Italian Book Corp., v. American Broadcasting Co., 458 F.Supp. 65 (S.D. N.Y., 1978).)
- Not a fair use. Downloading songs is not a fair use. A woman was sued for copyright infringement for downloading 30 songs using peer-to-peer file sharing software. She argued that her activity was a fair use because she was downloading the songs to determine if she wanted to later buy them. Important factors: Since numerous sites, such as iTunes, permit listeners to sample and examine portions of songs without downloading, the court rejected this “sampling” defense. (BMG Music v. Gonzalez, 430 F.3d 888 (7th Cir. 2005).)
- Not a fair use. A defendant in a music file sharing case could not claim a fair use defense since he had failed to provide evidence that his copying of music files involved any transformative use (an essential element in proving fair use). Important factors: The court held that the defendant was confusing “‘fairness’ and ‘fair use’—in the end, fair use is not a referendum on fairness in the abstract …” (Capitol Records Inc. v. Alaujan, 2009 WL 5873136 (D. Mass., 7/27/09).)
- Fair use. Comedians on the late-night television show Saturday Night Live parodied the song “I Love New York” using the words “I Love Sodom.” Only the words “I Love” and four musical notes were taken from the original work. Important factors: The Saturday Night Live version of the jingle did not compete with or detract from the original song. (Elsmere Music, Inc. v. National Broadcasting Co., 482 F.Supp. 741 (S.D. N.Y.), aff’d 632 F.2d 252 (2d Cir. 1980).)
- Fair use. The composers of the song “When Sunny Gets Blue” claimed that their song was infringed by “When Sonny Sniffs Glue,” a 29-second parody that altered the original lyric line and borrowed six bars of the song. A court determined this parody was excused as a fair use. Important factors: Only 29 seconds of music were borrowed (not the complete song). (Fisher v. Dees, 794 F.2d 432 (9th Cir. 1986).) (Note: As a general rule, parodying more than a few lines of a song lyric is unlikely to be excused as a fair use. Performers such as Weird Al Yankovic, who earn a living by humorously modifying hit songs, seek permission of the songwriters before recording their parodies.)
- Fair use. The rap group 2 Live Crew borrowed the opening musical tag and the words (but not the melody) from the first line of the song “Pretty Woman” (“Oh, pretty woman, walking down the street”). The rest of the lyrics and the music were different. Important factors: The group’s use was transformative and borrowed only a small portion of the original song. The 2 Live Crew version was essentially a different piece of music; the only similarity was a brief musical opening part and the opening line. (Note: The rap group had initially sought to pay for the right to use portions of the song but were rebuffed by the publisher, who did not want “Pretty Woman” used in a rap song.) (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994).)
- Fair use. A movie company used a photo of a naked pregnant woman onto which it superimposed the head of actor Leslie Nielsen. The photo was a parody using similar lighting and body positioning of a famous photograph taken by Annie Leibovitz of the actress Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Important factors: The movie company’s use was transformative because it imitated the photographer’s style for comic effect or ridicule. (Leibovitz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 137 F.3d 109 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1998).)
- Fair use. A pro-life video organization created two antiabortion videos by borrowing video clips from a pro-choice video and juxtaposing them with actual abortion footage. Important factors: The court characterized the pro-life videos as parodies despite the fact they did not meet the classic definition of a parody—something that humorously mimics or ridicules another’s work. In a unique holding, the court held that a parody need not be humorous, but may merely comment on, or criticize the original. Northland Family Planning Clinic v. Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, No. SACV 11-731 JVS (C.D. Cal., June 15, 2012).
- Not a fair use. An artist created a cover for a New Yorker magazine that presented a humorous view of geography through the eyes of a New York City resident. A movie company later advertised their film Moscow on the Hudson using a similar piece of artwork with similar elements. The artist sued and a court ruled that the movie company’s poster was not a fair use. Important factors: Why is this case different from the previous case involving the Leslie Nielsen/Annie Leibovitz parody? In the Leibovitz case, the use was a true parody, characterized by a juxtaposition of imagery that actually commented on or criticized the original. The Moscow on the Hudson movie poster did not create a parody; it simply borrowed the New Yorker’s parody (the typical New York City resident’s geographical viewpoint that New York City is the center of the world). (Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., 663 F.Supp. 706 (S.D. N.Y., 1987).)
- Not a fair use. An author mimicked the style of a Dr. Seuss book while retelling the facts of the O.J. Simpson murder trial in The Cat NOT in the Hat! A Parody by Dr. Juice. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the book was a satire, not a parody, because the book did not poke fun at or ridicule Dr. Seuss. Instead, it merely used the Dr. Seuss characters and style to tell the story of the murder. Important factors: The author’s work was nontransformative and commercial. (Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. v. Penguin Books USA, Inc., 109 F.3d 1394 (9th Cir. 1997).)