Bristol, RI asked in Copyright for Rhode Island

Q: Regarding fair use copyright: would showing a documentary at our local library for education and analysis be ok?

We are a small group of residents who want to promote discussion of important topics in our town. As such, we would like to start a video series at our local library. The library told us we needed to get copyright permission. After doing some research, I discovered the "fair use" doctrine. If our videos are strictly for education and criticism, and we are not charging admission, could we be covered under the "fair use" doctrine? Thank you, Matt

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1 Lawyer Answer
James L. Arrasmith
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A: Hi Matt,

The fair use doctrine in US copyright law does allow for limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on four main factors:

1. The purpose and character of the use (educational, non-profit, transformative vs. commercial)

2. The nature of the copyrighted work

3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the whole work

4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the work

Showing a documentary at the library for educational purposes with no admission fee would lean in favor of fair use, especially if you limit it to short clips and pair it with commentary and discussion to make it transformative. The non-profit, educational nature helps your case.

However, fair use is decided on a case-by-case basis, and there are no bright line rules. Documentaries tend to involve a lot of underlying rights (music, film clips, photos, etc.) which can complicate the analysis. The safest approach is to seek permission.

If you want to rely on fair use, I would recommend:

- Using short, limited clips rather than the full documentary

- Adding substantial educational discussion and commentary to transform the purpose

- Advertising it as an educational event, not a showing of the film

- Consulting an intellectual property attorney for guidance

But there is always some legal risk relying on fair use. The copyright holder could still object and potentially take action if they disagree with your assessment. Seeking permission, if feasible, is advisable.

I hope this helps provide an overview, but for a more definitive answer, I would consult an IP attorney.

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