It’s important because it allows creators to reference other works in new ways: to comment on song lyrics, to argue against an author’s work, , to build on a previous scholarly study, to make fun of a movie or song by parodying it, to use part of a text in class, or any number of other ways. Fair use is intended to balance the rights of the copyright holder against the public good: there’s an expectation that even if you own a work, others can build on it in certain ways. That encourages the creation of more new works.
Usually, if you’re using part (not all) of a copyrighted work, and you’re using it in a “transformative” way – doing something new with it like adding to it, commenting on it or parodying it – that’s probably fair use, and you’re within your rights to use it even if the copyright owner of the original work disagrees.
There’s a lot of legal gray area around how much of a particular work is okay to use, and around what exactly a transformative use is. If a copyright case goes to court, fair use can be used as an affirmative defense, and it’s decided on a case by case basis. Look at tomorrow’s post about the four factors to learn more about how to tell whether a use might fall under fair use.
Check out the fair use page on our copyright research guide to learn more.