Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials

"What is fair use?

We would all appreciate a clear, crisp answer to that one, but far from clear and crisp, fair use is better described as a shadowy territory whose boundaries are disputed, more so now that it includes cyberspace than ever before. In a way, it's like a no-man's land. Enter at your own risk.

Why is it like this and does it have to be this way? Is there no alternative to the vagueness of the "four factor fair use analysis," to fear of lawsuits and frustration with uncertainty? Maybe it is reasonable to simply throw up our hands and say, "What's the use?" After all, many legal scholars, politicians, copyright owners and users and their lawyers agree that fair use is so hard to understand that it fails to provide effective guidance for the use of others' works today. But the fact is, we really must understand and rely on it.

So wouldn't Guidelines help? Many people who think so recently gathered in Washington to negotiate Guidelines for Educational Uses of Digital Works in a two-year-long Conference on Fair Use ("CONFU"). For many, the Guidelines that emerged satisfied the need for clarity; but for some, considerable objections remained. Some CONFU participants and their constituents complained that the Guidelines were too narrow; others that they were too broad; or unfounded in the law; or too premature; or too long; or unclear; and so on. In the minds of many, the Guidelines asked the right questions, but for some, they provided the wrong answers."

The University of Texas decided to take a different approach to guiding its component institutions and faculty, staff and students in the exercise of fair use rights. They call their approach "Rules of Thumb" for the Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials. Like the Guidelines from which they are in some cases derived, the Rules of Thumb are tailored to different uses of others' works. But unlike the Guidelines, they are short, concise, and easy to read.