Scale balancing copyright symbol and mortarboard hat,

© 2008 Michael Brewer & ALA Office of Information Technology Policy, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The ultimate purpose of copyright is not solely to protect creators’ rights. That may sound like a radical statement, but protecting individuals’ rights is merely the means to an end. Copyright is actually intended to promote progress, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of society as a whole.

Ideally, everyone prospers from new works which generate culture, provoke discourse, commentary, or criticism, and inspire other creators to produce something new in turn. Copyright encourages individuals and businesses to create art, literature, music and other original expressions by granting authors the exclusive rights to their work so that they may have an opportunity to profit from their endeavors. Once creators have had a chance to benefit from their work, copyright expires and others may use an author’s work without restriction, but this doesn’t happen for a long time—70 years after the death of the author!

Particularly given the lengthy duration of copyright protection, fair use provides an important exception to copyright that helps to balance the interests of creators and the public good. Without fair use and other copyright exceptions, it would become prohibitively time consuming and expensive to conduct everyday activities like reporting the news or teaching a class because journalists, teachers, and others would need to seek permission every time they wanted to use copyrighted materials. Additionally, rightsholders can (and do!) refuse to grant permission for uses they see as undesirable or damaging, such as critical reviews. Fair use provides an important safeguard against censorship via copyright.


By Jessica Meindertsma, Rights Management Specialist at The Ohio State University Libraries’ Copyright Resources Center