Youtube and Fair Use – Best Practices

Youtube and Fair Use – Best Practices

Best Practices

This code of practices is organized, for ease of understanding, around common situations that come up for online video makers. These situations do not, of course, exhaust the possible applications of fair use to tomorrow’s media-making techniques.

But first, one general comment: Inevitably, considerations of good faith come into play in fair use analysis. One way to show good faith is to provide credit or attribution, where possible, to the owners of the material being used.

ONE: Commenting on or Critiquing of Copyrighted Material

Video makers often take as their raw material an example of popular culture, which they comment on in some way. They may add unlikely subtitles. They may create a fan tribute (positive commentary) or ridicule a cultural object (negative commentary). They may comment or criticize indirectly (by way of parody, for example), as well as directly. They may solicit critique by others, who provide the commentary or add to it.

PRINCIPLE: Video makers have the right to use as much of the original work as they need to in order to put it under some kind of scrutiny. Comment and critique are at the very core of the fair use doctrine as a safeguard for freedom of expression. So long as the maker analyzes, comments on, or responds to the work itself, the means may vary. Commentary may be explicit (as might be achieved, for example, by the addition of narration) or implicit (accomplished by means of recasting or recontextualizing the original). In the case of negative commentary, the fact that the critique itself may do economic damage to the market for the quoted work (as a negative review or a scathing piece of ridicule might) is irrelevant.

LIMITATION: The use should not be so extensive or pervasive that it ceases to function as critique and becomes, instead, a way of satisfying the audience’s taste for the thing (or the kind of thing) that is being quoted. In other words, the new use should not become a market substitute for the work (or other works like it).

TWO: Using copyrighted material for illustration or example

Sometimes video makers quote copyrighted material (for instance, music, video, photographs, animation, text) not in order to comment upon it, but because it aptly illustrates an argument or a point. For example, clips from Hollywood films might be used to demonstrate changing American attitudes toward race; a succession of photos of the same celebrity may represent the stages in the star’s career; a news clip of a politician speaking may reinforce an assertion.

PRINCIPLE: This sort of quotation generally should be considered fair use and is widely recognized as such in other creative communities. For instance, writers in print media do not hesitate to use illustrative quotations of both words and images. The possibility that the quotes might entertain and engage an audience as well as illustrate a video maker’s argument takes nothing away from the fair use claim. Works of popular culture typically have illustrative power precisely because they are popular. This kind of use is fair when it is important to the larger purpose of the work but also subordinate to it. It is fair when video makers are not presenting the quoted material for its original purpose but to harness it for a new one. This kind of use is, thus, creating new value.

LIMITATIONS: To the extent possible and appropriate, illustrative quotations should be drawn from a range of different sources; and each quotation (however many may be employed to create an overall pattern of illustrations) should be no longer than is necessary to achieve the intended effect. Properly attributing material, whether in the body of the text, in credits, or in associated material will often reduce the likelihood of complaints or legal action and may bolster a maker’s fair use claim.

THREE: Capturing copyrighted material incidentally or accidentally

Video makers often record copyrighted sounds and images when they are recording sequences in everyday settings. For instance, they may be filming a wedding dance where copyrighted music is playing, capturing the sight of a child learning to walk with a favorite tune playing in the background, or recording their own thoughts in a bedroom with copyrighted posters on the walls. Such copyrighted material is an audio-visual found object. In order to eliminate this incidentally or accidentally captured material, makers would have to avoid, alter, or falsify reality.

PRINCIPLE: Fair use protects the creative choices of video makers who seek their material in real life. Where a sound or image has been captured incidentally and without pre-arrangement, as part of an unstaged scene, it is permissible to use it, to a reasonable extent, as part of the final version of the video. Otherwise, one of the fundamental purposes of copyright–to encourage new creativity–would be betrayed.

LIMITATION: In order to take advantage of fair use in this context, the video maker should be sure that the particular media content played or displayed was not requested or directed; that the material is integral to the scene or its action; that the use is not so extensive that it calls attention to itself as the primary focus of interest; and that where possible, the material used is properly attributed.

FOUR: Reproducing, reposting, or quoting in order to memorialize, preserve, or rescue an experience, an event, or a cultural phenomenon

Repurposed copyrighted material is central to this kind of video. For instance, someone may record their favorite performance or document their own presence at a rock concert. Someone may post a controversial or notorious moment from broadcast television or a public event (a Stephen Colbert speech, a presidential address, a celebrity blooper). Someone may reproduce portions of a work that has been taken out of circulation, unjustly in their opinion. Gamers may record their performances.

PRINCIPLE: Video makers are using new technology to accomplish culturally positive functions that are widely accepted–or even celebrated–in the analog information environment. In other media and platforms, creators regularly recollect, describe, catalog, and preserve cultural expression for public memory. Written memoirs for instance are valued for the specificity and accuracy of their recollections; collectors of ephemeral material are valued for creating archives for future users. Such memorializing transforms the original in various ways–perhaps by putting the original work in a different context, perhaps by putting it in juxtaposition with other such works, perhaps by preserving it. This use also does not impair the legitimate market for the original work.

LIMITATION: Fair use reaches its limits when the entertainment content is reproduced in amounts that are disproportionate to purposes of documentation, or in the case of archiving, when the material is readily available from authorized sources.

FIVE: Copying, restoring, and recirculating a work or part of a work for purposes of launching a discussion

Online video contributors often copy and post a work or part of it because they love or hate it, or find it exemplary of something they love or hate, or see it as the center of an existing debate. They want to share that work or portion of a work because they have a connection to it and want to spur a discussion about it based on that connection. These works can be, among other things, cultural (Worst Music Video Ever!, a controversial comedian’s performance), political (a campaign appearance or ad), social or educational (a public service announcement, a presentation on a school’s drug policy).

PRINCIPLE: Such uses are at the heart of freedom of expression and demonstrate the importance of fair use to maintain this freedom. When content that originally was offered to entertain or inform or instruct is offered up with the distinct purpose of launching an online conversation, its use has been transformed. When protected works are selectively repurposed in this way, a fundamental goal of the copyright system–to promote the republican ideal of robust social discourse–is served.

LIMITATIONS: The purpose of the copying and posting needs to be clear; the viewer needs to know that the intent of the poster is to spur discussion. The mere fact that a site permits comments is not enough to indicate intent. The poster might title a work appropriately so that it encourages comment, or provide context or a spur to discussion with an initial comment on a site, or seek out a site that encourages commentary.

SIX: Quoting in order to recombine elements to make a new work that depends for its meaning on (often unlikely) relationships between the elements

Video makers often create new works entirely out of existing ones, just as in the past artists have made collages and pastiches. Sometimes there is a critical purpose, sometimes a celebratory one, sometimes a humorous or other motive, in which new makers may easily see their uses as fair under category one. Sometimes, however, juxtaposition creates new meaning in other ways. Mashups (the combining of different materials to compose a new work), remixes (the re-editing of an existing work), and music videos all use this technique of recombining existing material. Other makers achieve similar effects by adding their own new expression (subtitles, images, dialog, sound effects or animation, for example) to existing works.

PRINCIPLE: This kind of activity is covered by fair use to the extent that the reuse of copyrighted works creates new meaning by juxtaposition. Combining the speeches by two politicians and a love song, for example, as in “Bush Blair Endless Love,” changes the meaning of all three pieces of copyrighted material. Combining the image of an innocent prairie dog and three ominous chords from a movie soundtrack, as in “Dramatic Chipmunk,” creates an ironic third meaning out of the original materials. The recombinant new work has a cultural identity of its own and addresses an audience different from those for which its components were intended.

LIMITATIONS: If a work is merely reused without significant change of context or meaning, then its reuse goes beyond the limits of fair use. Similarly, where the juxtaposition is a pretext to exploit the popularity or appeal of the copyrighted work employed, or where the amount of material used is excessive, fair use should not apply. For example, fair use will not apply when a copyrighted song is used in its entirety as a sound track for a newly created video simply because the music evokes a desired mood rather than to change its meaning; when someone sings or dances to recorded popular music without comment, thus using it for its original purpose; or when newlyweds decorate or embellish a wedding video with favorite songs simply because they like those songs or think they express the emotion of the moment.


These principles don’t exhaust the possibilities of fair use for online video. They merely address the most common situations today. Inevitably, online video makers will find themselves in situations that are hybrids of those described above or will develop new practices. Then, they can be guided by the same basic values of fairness, proportionality, and reasonableness that inform this code of practices. As community practices develop and become more public, the norms that emerge from these practices will themselves provide additional information on what is fair use

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