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National Fair Use Week: Top 5 things you should know

Nancy De Los Santos self-portrait. Circa 1975. Photo courtesy Nancy De Los Santos.

ANN ARBOR—Have you ever forwarded photos taken by a friend to another friend, watched a clip from a television show on Facebook or quoted from a published work in a research paper?

Then you’ve exercised fair use, an important provision in copyright law that enables everything from casual everyday sharing of copyrighted material to important research, academic criticism and political discourse.

Sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries, Fair Use Week (along with Fair Dealing Week in Canada) is an annual celebration of the important doctrines of fair use and fair dealing.

Ahead of Fair Use Week Feb. 20-24, here are the “Top 5 things you should know about fair use,” according to Melissa Levine, Ana Enriquez and Justin Bonfiglio, copyright specialists at the U-M Library copyright office.

  1. You rely on fair use more than you think.  

When you quote someone in a paper, search for an image online or create new art based on something that came before, you’re probably relying on fair use.

  1. Fair use is about the future.  

At its core, fair use is solid. Around the edges, it’s flexible. This flexibility enables fair use to remain powerful as technology evolves. Fair use played a crucial role in the development of the photocopier, video recording devices and the internet. Now it’s ready to smooth the way for what’s next.  

  1. You don’t need to be a lawyer to exercise fair use.  

In fact, you don’t even need to talk to a lawyer to exercise fair use. Fair use is your right. It’s there for you even if you don’t understand it perfectly. But if you want to understand it better, you can always contact the U-M Library Copyright Office (

  1. Fair use is a “First Amendment safeguard.”

Fair use is the foremost right of users under U.S. copyright law. It allows everyone to make certain uses of copyrighted material without permission. Fair use is frequently described as a “safety valve,” which is a good way to think about its function within our copyright law. Without fair use, copyright constraints would stymie our economy, our academic institutions and many things we do every day. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has called fair use a “First Amendment safeguard.” She’s right. Fair use is particularly important as a preventive against copyright holders’ attempting  to limit someone’s freedom of speech.  

  1.  Fair use is not the only game in town.  

If you don’t think your use is a fair use, there are many other options for you. You could use public domain or open-licensed materials, rely on a different user’s right or use a work with permission from its copyright holder.

The U-M Library will host four Fair Use Week events, which are free to the public.