Fair use plays a critical role in copyright law. For the benefit of society, it allows certain uses of copyrighted works without obtaining permission from, or paying fees to, copyright owners. Fair use has been an established part of copyright law for over 150 years, and – as the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized – helps reconcile copyright principles with the First Amendment.
Fair use is a fact-based doctrine. It is intentionally flexible, permitting the doctrine to endure as society evolves, and as new media and technologies develop and advance, but at the same time creating uncertainty in some areas. Fair use was codified in the 1976 Copyright Act. The statute (currently at 17 U.S.C. § 107) cites four factors that typically guide fair use determinations, although these factors are not exhaustive and other facts and considerations may be taken into account.
The Visual Resources Association (VRA), an international organization for image media professionals that furthers research and education in the field of image management, published its Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research and Study in 2011. The statement is a helpful tool for educators and students. It describes the six uses of images that fall within the doctrine of fair use according to United States copyright law: the use of images for the purpose of teaching; the preservation and transferring of images from one format to another; the creation of online image resources for students; the use of images by students in the context of the classroom; the sharing of images among cultural or educational institutions; and the inclusion of images in theses and dissertations.