Who Says Life Is Fair?

When Passport Video created a 16-part video documentary on Elvis Presley’s life, the finished product relied on material from television appearances and recorded performances, as is customary, but showed just a wee bit too much of the King’s performances without adding any additional context or insight. And that’s why the courts ruled against them in 2003 in what’s become a textbook violation of fair use.

The Fair Use doctrine in United States copyright law allows for limited use of copyrighted material without permission from rights holders. As content multiplies like untamed rabbits in our multimedia world, the doctrine is increasingly vital to understand. Producers should ask themselves three questions when using copyrighted materials: Did you need to use the clip to make your point; did you use only as much as you need; and is the connection between the idea and the work clear?

If you can’t answer yes to those questions, you’re usually making some of the common mistakes surrounding fair use such as: using the material for marketing purposes; using the work just because it’s cool, but for no apparent reason; using the work in a way that doesn’t offer insight, commentary or critique.

A parody, for example, must target the work being parodied and transform the purpose or character of the original work, says Jack Lerner, a professor at University of Southern California Law School, specializing in intellectual property matters.

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