Without certainty, how does fair use help? (weekly widget)

Congress recognized that fair use is hard to apply, since one is only certain that a use was fair after a judge decides that it was. So Congress added a provision to encourage teachers and librarians to use fair use where it reasonably can apply. Section 504(c)(2) of the copyright law, part of the section about remedies for infringement, says that “statutory damages,” which are the largest liability in most infringement cases, must be remitted to $0 if the person found to be infringing is BOTH an employee of a non-profit educational institution acting within the scope of his or her employment AND had a good faith belief that the use they made of the copyrighted material was fair use.

This provision greatly reduces the risk when academics think about fair use, since it eliminates most of the money that can be awarded if it is found that the user was mistaken in their fair use analysis. But it is important to note that the belief that a use is fair must be in good faith, which means it has to be both subjectively honest (I really did believe it was fair use) and objectively reasonable (a reasonable person could have come to the same conclusion). In those circumstances, Congress has created an incentive (by reducing what one has to lose) to make reasonable fair uses of protected material. If after carefully considering the fair use factors (this checklist can help), one reasonably believes the use is fair, it is often possible that the educational value of going forward will outweigh this reduced risk of getting it wrong.