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What is Fair Use?

Just before my second trimester in a school I was in, a department head told me that I’ll be teaching a new subject the next trimester. I thought I heard him right so I said, “Oh, copywriting. Okay, I’m in.” I even took a workshop just to refresh my copywriting skills.

Weeks later, I realized that the new subject I was about to teach was copyright law. I taught Copyright Laws and Multimedia Arts Ethics for a trimester and it was a good learning experience for me and my students.

It is okay to quote a few lines from a novel just as long as you are within the context of fair use. But before we discuss fair use, let’s start with the basics of copyright.

What is Copyright?

Copyright laws were created to promote the progress of arts and sciences. These laws protect the original works of inventors, authors, artists, and other “creatives”. These also cover the exclusive rights to copy, adapt, display, or perform, and to control the first sale of their works to the public.

Once a person fixes an original expression of an idea in a tangible form, that person can claim copyright in the work but with certain limitations.

What are the Limitations?

Copyright only protects the form of expression but not the ideas. Therefore, an idea like a love story of a cat and a dog may have different forms of expression. One author may express it in a short story. Another creative may express it in a song. And another artist may express it in a comic book. So you cannot just say, “Hey, someone stole my idea!” unless you have put that idea in a tangible format.

The copyright owner controls public but not private displays or performances. Therefore, anything you use at a personal level like singing in the bathroom or sharing a book with your child does not constitute copyright infringement. But if you perform or display it publicly for financial income purposes, then you have to ask permission to use the copyrighted material first.

This is where YouTube reaction videos get struck due to copyright infringement. As you all know, anyone with a YouTube account can earn as soon as they hit more than ten thousand subscribers and more than a thousand views on a single video. A person can earn money from YouTube depending on the number of subscribers, clicked ads, etc. And most YouTube accounts I see online bask in the popularity of reaction videos — reacting to TV shows or performances — without realizing that they’re violating a few principles of fair use and copyright.

The copyright owner controls the first sale but not the subsequent sales of each copy of the work. Writers need to understand this part. Selling your work to a publisher already gives that publisher the right to sell and gain income from the sale of your work. Unless specified in the sales contract, you may or may not receive anything else.

Copyright usually lasts for 50 years, and once the 50 years have lapsed, the work becomes the public domain. But not all works past the 50 years mark are public domain. Heirs of authors or other creatives might have taken over the copyright of the author’s works. So check it out first.

The copyright owner’s rights are limited by the “fair use” doctrine.

What is Fair Use?

The fair use of copyrighted works includes reproduction in copies, mostly in part, for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, or research, and is not an infringement of copyright.

Reaction videos on YouTube are usually covered under this fair use doctrine, although this situation is tricky as I’ve mentioned earlier because part of reaction videos is displaying copyrighted material for financial income.

Fair use is always going to be a gray area, and it should be. We need to allow for things we can’t see yet.

Robin Gross

Factors To Be Considered in Fair Use

  • Purpose and character. If the purpose of copying the work in part is for non-commercial research, educational purposes, critique, and news reporting, then the act is considered fair use. Most reaction videos on YouTube will cite this as fair use.
  • Nature of the copyrighted work. Non-fiction works like science and history may receive less protection than fictional works because facts need not be copyrighted. For fiction, quoting for the purpose of the book review is generally fair provided the amount taken is reasonable.
  • The amount and substance of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole. Take into consideration the quality and the quantity of the words taken from the work. If the “heart” or the main essence of the work or its full context was taken, this is not fair use even if the number of words copied is few.
  • The effect on the market. The degree of fair use now depends on the impact of the new use on the original work. If the use is minimal and for a valid purpose, then the author of the original work may consider it fair. But with today’s social media, it’s easy to know the impact. People who are active on the Internet can easily tag work as “plagiarized” if they know something about the original work.

It’s easy to say that your work is inspired by another. But it’s difficult if you’re accused of plagiarism.

Putting Fair Use to Work

  • Always remember that ideas, themes, and facts are not copyrighted. However, events in a fictional work should not be taken as facts.
  • If getting permission to quote is something practical on your part, better get it from the author.
  • Play safe by quoting as little as possible. It is safe to quote up to 10 percent of the work or less.
  • Do not quote or use the “heart” of the original work or its full context.
  • Refrain from substituting the original words and pass it as something new. Be careful in re-wording or paraphrasing texts from your research. Always check your work with a plagiarism checker after writing and before submission.
  • As much as possible, keep the borrowed portion insignificant or undetectable.

What is the Poor Man’s Copyright?

This is a simple procedure to prove that you own a piece of original work. All you have to do is mail your manuscript to yourself. The date and time stamp on when it was sent and received serves as the copyright date. However, this process is accepted here in the Philippines and may not be accepted in other countries. I suggest that you file your copyright to the proper government agencies in your area.

Songs Are Tricky

Unlike novels, quoting a line of a song can be tricky especially if you want to use it in your novel. To be on the safe side, ask around or consult a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property or copyright laws. If you can’t afford to pay for the rights, your next best bet is to compose a song.

A New Book on Copyright for Freelance Writers

A year ago, I participated in a collaborative project between the Freelance Writers Guild of the Philippines (FWGP) and the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines (IPOPHL). This project is a book on copyright guide for Filipino freelance writers.

This book will be officially launched on Saturday, 4 March 2023 at 10:00 am on the FWGP Facebook page. You may contact FWGP for more details on how to get a copy of this book.

Let me take this opportunity to thank FWGP and IPOPHL for the chance of writing a chapter of this book. Also, I would like to thank my resource persons, Atty. Alvin Alburo and Atty. Marnie Tonson.

My Thoughts

Intellectual property is a broad topic. For creatives, being aware of their rights to their creations should take priority in order to avoid the abuse and exploitation of rights and creative works. I suggest that you get a copy of “The Written Property (A Freelance Writer’s Guide to Copyright)” from the FWGP.

If you are interested in legal topics, let me know. I’d appreciate any feedback. Or subscribe and join the tribe.

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