Copyright: What Counts As ‘Fair Use’?

I’ve increasingly been growing concerned about the use of copyrighted content on my blog.  I’ve always shrugged it off in the past as being harmless since I don’t make a profit, however after reading this post by someone who had court action taken against them for using a copyrighted image I reconsidered this policy.  I’ve subsequently taken off any images that I think might violate copyright laws but there are a few areas where it’s difficult to call.  There is a thing called ‘fair use’ which allows the reproduction of copyrighted content for education purposes, reviews and news reporting.  The problem is that this ‘fair use’ allowance is vague at best, and only really tends to be decided by a judge’s ruling at the end of a law battle; not the route I would prefer to take!  I’ve done some research and compiled a list of instances where copyright violation might take place:

Using someone else’s photo or artwork.
This is a fairly simple breach of copyright if you haven’t obtained the owner’s permission.  Contrary to what’s often believed, pictures from Google Images and Wikipedia cannot be used on your own website or blog without permission.  There are places where you can acquire free-to-use images, however, including Wikimedia Commons.

Content from news stories.
I think that, given the source is credited, we’re free to quote from newspaper articles or interviews.  This does not apply to images, which are covered by copyright laws to protect photographic journalists ‘on the ground’.

Astronomical photos.
No idea about this, but I’ve kept various pictures of the Earth and Mars I have on this blog because there are few people likely to have ownership of such images and I can’t see the various space exploration agencies taking action against a blog which promotes interest in what they do.

Books, Films and TV shows.
This is the biggest grey area.  I’ve taken down all pictures, posters and covers on my reviews and literary analyses on the blog, but some of this really felt unecessary.  ‘Fair use’ does give a passing mention to the use of small extracts from copyrighted work so long as there is either a review or criticism published alongside it, but there’s no blanket policy towards what is acceptable.  From a moral standpoint I see zero problem with using copyrighted images in this way because only a fraction of the content is being reproduced and it will only increase publicity for the creative work – but because copyright law is so vague I really don’t know where we stand with this.

As a writer, I really do appreciate the need to protect the creative work people produce.  But we need a more coherent and understood set of rules to determine when using copyrighted material is and is not acceptable.  Instances of ‘fair use’ need to be set out in stone rather than have vague guidelines written into law to be interpreted at a judge’s discretion.  Perhaps there even needs to be international agreement on this, as I believe copyright laws vary from country to country (which in a borderless entity such as the internet makes things infinitely more confusing).  And certainly, I don’t think small bloggers should have hefty lawsuits taken against them as a result of their ignorance, unless they refuse to comply with the copyright holder’s demands.