I want to publish fan-made videos on YouTube that contain clips from movies and TV shows. No money will be gained for myself. Is the act of downloading those movies and TV episodes for free, editing them, and publishing them legal in America?
Evaluating a potential copyright violation is very fact-intensive, so we don't have enough information to answer the question.
Making a copy is generally going to be a copyright violation, but there's still going to be a lot of breathing room under the fair use doctrine. Again, we'd need more details to provide a useful answer, but you may be able to analyze the question yourself using the following information.
Analysis of fair-use defenses looks at four questions, and the answers to the questions can tip the scales in favor of or against a finding of fair use:
- Does your kind of copying affect the market for the original? To what extent can your copy fulfill the demand for the original? What if there were widespread copying of the kind you're considering? The more potential there is for the copies to replace the original, the less likely it is to be fair use. This is the most important factor in the analysis.
- Why did you make the copy? If you made the copy for purposes of news reporting, criticism, or commentary, it's more likely to be fair use. If you made a copy just so you could watch again later whenever you feel like it, that's may still be fair use, but it is somewhat less likely. If you made a copy so you could sell it for profit, that's almost certainly not fair use.
- How much did you copy? Did you copy the whole thing, or did you copy only as much as you needed to achieve your purpose under Question 2? If you copy "too much" -- both in the raw amount and as a fraction of the whole work -- it's less likely to be fair use.
- What did you copy? Such works can be copyrighted but are not part of the Highly creative works, such as poems, music, and movies, are at the "core" of copyright principles. A fair use analysis will be more stringent in these cases than when copying a purely factual work, such as a phone book, biography, or list of statistics. This is the least important factor in the analysis.
So take all of those and imagine the answer to each on a spectrum. If you see things generally tipping in the direction of fair use, that's a good indication that you're going to be safe. If you see things tipping in the other direction, you may want to reconsider.
Again, these can be notoriously tricky questions. If you're dealing with a real situation, you should consult an attorney to get an answer specific to your situation.