What constitutes ‘fair use’ for mashups?

Scholars and lawyers working with under the aegis of the Communication School at American University have compiled a “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.” That title might lead videographers, amateur film-makers and digital activists to conclude that the PDF will teach them how much copyrighte material they can legally snip and remix without getting sued into the next plane of existence by the ghost of Jack Valenti.

But the blog summary says: 

“This code of best practices does not tell you the limits of fair use rights.”

So what gives? I would guess that the lawyers and academicians who assembled this work are passionate about the importance of fair use, because they say things like:

“Copyright law has several features that permit quotations from copyrighted works without permission or payment, under certain conditions. Fair use is the most important of these features. It has been an important part of copyright law for more than 150 years. Where it applies, fair use is a right, not a mere privilege. In fact, as the Supreme Court has pointed out, fair use keeps copyright from violating the First Amendment. As copyright protects more works for longer periods than ever before, it makes new creation harder. As a result, fair use is more important today than ever before.”

Such strong words practically exhort a person to test the limits of fair use at a time when copyright is being misapplied even by the Associated Press, which ought to be safe-guarding free speech instead of licensing it out in five-word increments. 

But offering legal advice exposes its issuer to liability and culpability because, to quote the old saw, the devil is always in the details. Which remark, I hasten to add, does not mean to injure or defame the reputation of Jack Valenti by insinuating that he is or ever was the devil, or the devil’s agent or assign, or that Jack Valenti might be, even now, sweating in that eternal hot tub down below, with a Margarita in one hand and a babe in the other, as he barks instructions into his Bluetooth telling the Hollywood law firm of  Letz Fukem Butgood to prosecute another batch of college students for illegal downloads.

I suspect that a careful study of this Best Practices guide, and its associated links, will help you understand how other audio-visual creators have made use of this vital principle of fair use without losing their lives, their fortunes,or their sacred honors. Yet.