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Making a copy of anything could be considered copyright infringement, but what if it is for personal use rather than for distribution? Suppose I print out or take a screenshot of a webpage or a lecture presentation or an eBook and store it somewhere? Would this be likely to be fair use? I would guess the answer is no in some cases (you cannot copy an entire eBook intended for temporary use), but yes in most cases, such as if I print out or download a page on a publicly accessible webpage for personal use.

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    Noteworthy that terms like "no copy by electronic means" on documents (web pages, files) provided on the internet are nonsensical to begin with: Just looking at them on a browser -- clearly intended and condoned use by the author/page owner of a public web page -- typically creates copies on your local computer and likely in between. You could, offline, browse your cache the next day and re-read that page. Illegal? Hardly. You can now go and print that page. Illegal? Probably. Factually different? Hardly, except you can now read it on the loo and a tree lost its life. Aug 4, 2021 at 9:00
  • Fair use is about the intent of doing such printouts. Without stating yours it is not possible to assess whether this is fair use.
    – Eisenknurr
    Aug 4, 2021 at 11:42
  • The word "fair" in Fair Use is not what it looks like. It's not some judgement call, or a matter of personal taste. (i.e. is it fair or not) "Fair Use" is just a name, and it's about a test of a specific list of enumerable factors. They should have called it Glockenspiel Use, or named it after a person. It has nothing to do with whether your use is fair or not, and everything to do with the application of specific tests of fact which are too long to list in a comment, but google it: Fair Use four factors That will answer your question. Aug 4, 2021 at 15:49
  • @Eisenknurr I don't know what gives you the idea that fair use is about intent, but you are incorrect. Read 17 USC 107, linked in my answer. You will find no mention of intent, although factor one does refer to the purpose of the use. But the other three factors have nothing at all to do with purpose or intent Aug 4, 2021 at 15:52
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    @Eisenknurr Purpose is relevant, but is only one part of one factor. If the character of use is non-commercial, and the other factors favor fair use, the detailed purpose probably does not matter. But fair use is always fact-driven, and any fact about the intended use may turn out to be significant -- in the end it is up to the court to decide what issues to weight most heavily. Your revised question is indeed relevant Aug 4, 2021 at 16:31

2 Answers 2

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It is not possible to say that this is generally fair use, although sometimes it would be.

A copy for personal use is still a copyright right violation on its face, and fair use does not categorically exclude non-commercial or personal use of copyrighted works. It is a highly fact specific inquiry.

The likelihood of anyone discovering that you have done so and deciding to sue over it is slight, but that doesn't mean that there isn't potential copyright infringement liability.

Compare this to speeding. People do it all the time, and even driving one mile per hour above the speed limit is still a traffic violation. But it is rare for less serious violations to be ticketed.

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  • Other jurisdictions have exceptions or special rules for private copies (example copyrightuser.org/understand/exceptions/private-copying ) or for technical copies like the cases mentioned by @Peter_-_Reinstate Monica in a comment to the question. Aren't you sure US law doesn't include similar provisions?
    – Pere
    Aug 4, 2021 at 11:38
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    "A copy for personal use is still a copyright right violation on its face" I'm not sure this is true, in the past it was perfectly legal to record a copywrited TV broadcast on your VCR and watch it later.
    – Glen Yates
    Aug 4, 2021 at 15:36
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    @GlenYates It is prima facie an infringement, even if the affirmative defense of "fair use" may be available.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 21 at 18:33
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    @Brandin Time shifting for personal use via VCR was determined to be fair use and thus legal. Mass distribution was certainly practical and counterfeit VHS tapes were certainly illegal, so I'm not sure what point you are trying to make.
    – Glen Yates
    Sep 23 at 15:49
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    @Brandin Just because you never encountered it does not mean it did not exist. I lived through the VHS and even 8-Track tape heydeys, it was not uncommon to hear news stories of stores such as gas stations being busted for pirate 8-Tracks and then later pirate VHS tapes.
    – Glen Yates
    yesterday
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As a practical matter, if a person prints out a section of work on that person's own local printer, and does not provide this copy to anyone else, there is no plausible way in which the copyright owner would learn of it, and so no action could be taken. If the owner did learn, possible damages would be slight at best, as the person had made no profits, and the owner sustained no losses. Few owners in such a case would actually file a suit.

But leaving that aside, let us consider whether this would be a fair use under US copyright law, that is 17 USC 107.

  • Factor (1) the purpose and character of the use: The use does not seem to be commercial, and might be considered as "research". Thus it probably favors fair use, but perhaps only slightly.
  • Factor (2) the nature of the copyrighted work: If this is a "lecture", it probably favors fair use a bit, but not enough information is given in the question to really asses this factor.
  • Factor (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole: If the work is an ebook, a screen shot or even a few pages is only a small portion of the whole. If it is a lecture, then it is hard to say how much of the whole this might be, but probably significantly less than all of the work. Again, there is not really enough to analyze, but this factor probably favors fair use to some extent.
  • Factor (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work: There seems to be no effect whatever, so this factor clearly favors fair use.

In short, such an action might well fall under fair use, depending on details not clearly stated in the question, such as the nature and length of the work, and the amount to be printed out. It is not possible to say with assurance if fair use would apply, without specific details of the work and what part would be printed.

In this comment a user questions just how "fair" fair use is. "Fair use" was initially a judge-created concept, and had a lot to do with what judges considered fair. It has now been codified in 17 USC 107 (borrowing much language from previous case law) but the statute explicitly allows consideration of "other" unspecified factors in addition to the statutory four factors. That is how "transformative" became an important factor. In case law judges often discuss whether a use "serves the basic principles of copyright law". It might be called "socially positive use". But it is not at all a cut&dried factual deterioration. It is always fact-driven, but also always a judgement call.

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