Most images you see online are subject to copyright. This means you can only use them if you have permission from the rightsholder. But you may also see people claiming ‘fair use’ of copyrighted works. So, what is ‘fair use’? And how does it work for businesses and other commercial users? In this post, we look at the basics of fair use of copyrighted materials in the UK.
What Is Fair Use?
Broadly, ‘fair use’ covers the idea that you can use parts of a copyrighted work without permission if it is necessary for a specific reason, such as quoting a book in a review. This applies to any copyrighted media, including texts, audio and video recordings, photographs, and other images.
However, ‘fair use’ is not a legal term in the UK. Instead, British law uses a concept called ‘fair dealings’. Set out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, this concept provides that people can reproduce portions of a copyrighted work for certain purposes if:
- It does not impact on the market of the copyrighted work.
- It does not impinge on the rights of its creator.
- The amount of the work copied is deemed necessary and reasonable.
Essentially, if you use part of a copyrighted work without permission, you can claim ‘fair dealings’. If challenged, though, you will then need to prove that your use of the work was ‘fair’. And if you cannot prove this in court, you may be liable for damages to the copyright holder.
Exceptions to Copyright in the UK
The standard justifications for ‘fair dealings’ in UK law include:
- Research and Teaching – You can copy part of a copyrighted work for private study, non-commercial research, or instruction (e.g. a teacher might copy a chapter from a book to use in class). You will need to acknowledge the source of the copied material, though.
- Criticism and Review – You can copy parts of a publicly available work to review or criticise it. As above, you will need to acknowledge the source of the copied material. You should also ensure the quoted material is necessary for the points you make in the review or critique.
- Reporting of Current Events – You can sometimes use a portion of a copyrighted work to report on current events. However, this does not apply to photographs, for which you will need to pay the creator.
- Parody and Pastiche – Caricature, parody and pastiche of copyrighted works is also protected (i.e. using part of a work for humorous or satirical effect).
However, even these ‘exceptions’ to copyright come with various restrictions, such as how much you can copy. And these exceptions almost never cover commercial uses of copyrighted materials, so make sure you are familiar with the law surrounding them before claiming ‘fair dealings’.
Public Domain and Creative Commons Works
You should always be careful when dealing with copyrighted material, especially in a commercial context. UK law on ‘fair dealings’ is vague, complicated, and rarely covers business uses. As such, you will usually want to seek permission from the rightsholder before using copyrighted material.
Luckily, there are plenty of images and other media available that anyone can use for free as long as you know where to look. These include:
- Public Domain Works – Works that no longer fall under copyright, meaning anyone can use or reproduce them for any purpose. Typically, a work falls into the public domain 70 years after the death of its creator in the UK, but this is not always the case.
- Creative Commons Works – Works released under a Creative Commons license. These are limited licences that allow you to use a copyrighted work under certain conditions. Some place restrictions on commercial use, though, so be careful when using a CC work for business.
If you do intend to claim ‘fair use’ or ‘fair dealings’ over use of a copyrighted work, though, make sure it does not affect the rightsholder and that you only copy as much as required. You may also want to seek legal advice before doing so, as copyright infringement can be very expensive!