When Is Fair Use Fair?

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by Michele Preisendorf with Angela Eschler

Writers love quotes. What word-nerd doesn’t? We tape them on our mirrors, dashboards, and walls and post them to our websites. We like them to set the tone for our novels, start our nonfiction chapters off with inspiration and insight, and add authority to our own ideas. But many writers are never quite sure what’s safe to quote—how much, and in what contexts? Are there instances when you can safely borrow material that belongs to someone else without infringing on their copyright? And what happens if you do—accidentally, of course—infringe on someone’s copyright?

While you should always seek official legal counsel (from an expert in intellectual property law) before you use quotes, scenes, songs, etc., in any of your for-profit/for-fundraising works, we can give you a simplified answer to those questions today. If you’re still unsure about what you can fairly use after reading this article, the best practice is to follow the old adages, “better safe than sorry” and “when in doubt, go without,” as evidenced by the myriad court cases that have come about when folks thought  that they were doing it right. (Or you can call in a favor or write a check to that local lawyer and get the nitty-gritty answers to your questions.) [Read more...]