Fair Use and Public Libraries

Fair use is critical for libraries to lend freely.

Libraries rely on fair use policies to lend books and other materials to patrons.

February 20–24th is Fair Use Week! If you’ve been on the internet at all within the past 20 years, you’ve probably heard of the term “fair use.” Commentary YouTubers tend to throw the phrase around a lot, but what exactly is it, and why is fair use so important in media today?

What Is Fair Use?

In short, fair use refers to a section of the United States Copyright Law that covers the copying or referencing of a copyrighted work for transformative purposes. A transformative work takes the media it references and brings it a step further, adding something new to the work or altering its meaning. 

What Is Legal Under Fair Use?

Under fair use policies, there are a few ways creators can create and earn money through transformative works. The most common means of doing so are via the critique or commentary of a work and the parody of a work. 

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Critique and Commentary

You’ll see critiques and commentary in the form of reviews, cited quotes, or accompanied readings/viewings of a creative work. Shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and YouTube Let’s Plays are popular examples of commentary in action. Reviews, either written or filmed, also fall under the critique and commentary category of fair use since they focus on critiquing a work through a professional lens.


Parody works rely on the comedy aspect of fair use. When a work is parodied, it’s essentially poked at or made fun of through a comedic lens, but many creators within the same niche might parody each other’s works as a sign of respect. Parody skits that you’d see on Saturday Night Live are a prime example of transformative comedy, while animators incorporating the “Akira slide” into the work use parody as a sign of deep respect.

Other Transformative Works

While critique and parody are the two most common things that fall under fair use, other transformative works may also fall under fair use policies. Fan creations, like fan art, fanfiction, animations, or fan games, fall under the fair use umbrella. However, these works cannot be published for the creator’s personal profit. 

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How Fair Use Affects Libraries

So, how does fair use affect libraries? For libraries, fair use extends to more than just transformative works. A library can use a copyrighted work without the creator’s permission to preserve it, make it accessible to the public, or digitize specific works for archival purposes. Without fair use or these clauses in copyright law, libraries would not be able to lend out multiple copies of books, exchange media between library branches, or work with archivists to digitize and restore damaged content. Libraries play a crucial role in preserving art and literature!

So, let’s celebrate Fair Use Week together by checking some of our favorite books, watching our favorite films, and talking about them with our local library communities.

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