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Copyright for Librarians

Course Reserves for Articles and Chapters

Course Reserves for Articles and Chapters

Together with course management systems, like Canvas, and faculty and departmental websites, e-reserves have all but replaced paper coursepacks on college campuses. Reserves will always involve copying, but will also involve at least one and perhaps both the performance rights (public display and/or performance), and a public distribution. How does the statutory fair use test apply to copies made to go on reserve?

The four fair use factors

Let's consider a request to place six articles and a book chapter on reserve. Keep these points in mind:

  • The courts have repeatedly said that no single factor is determinative; that is, there is no one fact about the copying at issue that will, by itself, make it fair or unfair.
  • All four factors must be examined, weighed and balanced.
  • Nevertheless, findings as to one factor influence the weight given to other factors. This makes some factors, the first one in particular, more important than others: the character of the use under the first factor affects the way we think about the third and fourth factors (1, 3, 5).

Case-by-case balancing means that every situation, being different, conceivably results in a different outcome. This imprecision and unpredictability can make it difficult to determine what is and what is not a fair use, but the alternatives, asking for permission in all but the most obvious cases, or ignoring the need for permission by assuming that all educational use is fair, could both prove to be costly choices. So, learning to be more comfortable with the fair use analysis is an important step towards soundly operating a reserves system.

Applying the four fair use factors

Please read using the four factor fair use test before proceeding.  It will describe generally how "weighing and balancing" works. Remember, we are analyzing articles and book chapters, each one individually. As always, the hallmarks of fair use involve adequate protection of the copyright owner's interest.

  1. Purpose and character of the use. The first factor usually weighs in favor of nonprofit universities because the library and faculty are making nonprofit educational uses of materials for classroom use (3, 5).
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work. The second factor will weigh in favor of fair use if the material to be copied is published and factual (journal articles and treatises), rather than unpublished or creative and fanciful (novels, short stories, plays or similar works).
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used. The third factor may weigh against fair use if each article is considered a whole work. Generally, as the amount copied increases, fair use decreases, but being a nonprofit entity helps with this factor. Several courts have held that copying all of a work is not fatal to a fair use defense, especially in the nonprofit context (3, 5). If the amount copied is appropriate in light of the intended use, it will not weigh heavily against you, even if you copy the entire work.
  4. Effect of the use on the market for the copyrighted work. This factor responds to changes in the market for permissions and reprints (34). Publishers have managed to persuade courts to consider this market, rather than the market for the original work, when assessing the economic impact of the proposed use. Reserves uses should include password protected storage, streaming media when practical, and getting permission after the first semester use where there's a functional permissions market, as there is for text-based works. It could also mean purchasing licensed materials that are appropriate for your institution, like an image collection. The fourth factor may weigh against a finding of fair use if publishers can show they are losing licensing and royalty fees as a result of copying.

As discussed more fully in using the four factor fair use test, a publisher's willingness to license copies or the existence of easy ways to assess and collect royalties, is not by itself enough to defeat a fair use defense in a nonprofit setting (5).  

For our example, of the first three factors, only the third factor arguably weighs against a finding of fair use, but in the nonprofit context, and with an amount that is appropriate in light of the intended use, there is ample basis under Sony and Williams for a finding of fair use. In considering the fourth factor, the use would have to be described as an otherwise fair use so far, so we could expect that for a first time use at least, a court might disregard potential licensing or permission fees, not permitting them to convert this otherwise fair use into an unfair use. On the other hand, if these same materials were copied semester after semester, by the same professor for the same course, a court might be more inclined to take those lost revenues into account.

Who makes the copies?

This analysis would be the same whether the library or a faculty member makes the copies. Either would be exercising the same right under the same statute. In effect, the library acts as agent of the faculty member who is an agent of the university. 

What happens to the copies at the end of the semester?

Section 107 does not mention how long a copy may be retained, or whether at some point, a fair use copy ceases to be fair solely because of the passage of time (2). Nevertheless, there is a widespread belief that libraries should not retain a copy longer than one semester. Thus, even though it may not be logical to infer a time limit on fair use from the statute itself, it appears advisable nonetheless to obtain permission for uses beyond one semester.


1 American Geophysical Union v. Texaco, Inc., 802 F.Supp.1 (S.D.N.Y. 1992); 37 F.3d 881 (2nd Cir. 1994). The court was analyzing whether copying scholarly articles in their entirety for research purposes was a fair use. Most observers would have thought that copying to facilitate research would give Texaco an advantage under the first factor which would in turn affect the weight given to the third factor. But the court characterized this typical research copying as systematic, institutional and archival, and decided that such copying made the first factor weigh against a finding of fair use. Without a favorable finding under the first factor, Texaco got "hung out to dry" on the third and fourth factors as well. The court held that copying entire articles caused the third factor to weigh against fair use. This emphasizes the importance of the interplay between the factors in the analysis. 

2 Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984) The Sony court discussed "timeshifting" and acknowledged that sometimes copies made for more convenient viewing at another time are retained indefinitely. While indicating that temporary use for the convenience of viewers is fair use, the court did not go so far as to suggest that only temporary uses are fair or to put any time limit on the retention of copies. This recognition that retention occurs coupled with the absence of any specific exclusion of retention from the Court's determination of fair use, may well indicate a tacit acceptance of some amount of retention; however, such tacit acceptance, if reasonably inferred at all, is relatively weak support for the idea that there is no time limit on fair use, and it might quickly disappear if the issue were addressed directly as it was in the Texaco case.

3 Cambridge University Press v. Patton, 769 F.3d 1232 (11th Cir. 2014). The courts were looking at the use of an e-reserves system at Georgia State University. They found that fair use needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and should not rely on bright line limits related to amount. The nonprofit, educational aspect of the use still weighed in favor of fair use, even though the use was not transformative. The courts also said that a failure of the publisher to offer a license for reuse would tend to weigh in favor of fair use.

4 The decision in Basic Books, Inc. v. Kinko's Graphics Corp., 758 F. Supp. 1522 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) is generally credited with causing publishers to be more responsive to requests for permission to copy. Jane C. Ginsburg, "Reproduction of Protected Works for University Research or Teaching," 39 J. Copyright Soc'y 181, 210-211 (1992). 

5 Williams & Wilkins, 487 F.2d 1345 (Ct.Cl. 1973). Court held it was a fair use for libraries to photocopy articles for use by patrons engaged in scientific research.

More Information

For more information about fair use, please see the Fair Use Libguide.

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