American University Professors Help Journalists Create Principles on Fair Use

Share Article

The Set of Principles in Fair Use for Journalism will help journalists avoid self-censorship.

What constitutes fair use in journalism? When journalists are paralyzed by confusion about what copyrighted material they can use without permission, they self-censor, researchers say.

But now a set of principles, drafted by journalists for journalists, helps reporters decide when it is OK to use content from the web, social media, podcasts and beyond, without permission or payment.

American University’s Center for Social Media and Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, in conjunction with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, are releasing the Set of Principles in Fair Use for Journalism at a TEDx event today at the Poynter Institute.

The Set of Principles was shaped with the help of chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists, Online News Association and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. It has endorsement from, among others, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, J-Lab, MediaShift, National Association of Black Journalists Digital Journalism Task Force, New America Media, and the Poynter Institute.

"The Set of Principles in Fair Use for Journalism is vital to securing the legal circulation of our work,” said Kevin Z. Smith--former Society of Professional Journalists president, and current chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

The principles not only improve efficiency and effectiveness in today’s journalism by lowering risk and increasing confidence, but also enable innovation in digital space. "This set of principles helps journalists innovate responsibly, using copyright law with confidence," said Geneva Overholser, professor and director of USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism.

Dave Cohn, founder/director of Spot.Us and director of news at Circa, agreed. "Every web-native journalist needs to know how to use copyright law, and this set of principles reduces risk while encouraging the highest standards in cutting edge journalism."

The principles outline seven situations in which journalists routinely can and do employ fair use, describing both how fair use applies and its limits:

  •     Incidental capture
  •     Proof
  •     Use in cultural journalism
  •     Illustration
  •     Historical reference
  •     To foster public discussion
  •     Advancing the story

“The Principles are sturdy because they draw from the experience and judgment of journalists about the best way to practice journalism within the law,” said Peter Jaszi, co-facilitator of the Principles.

“We were honored to work with journalists to overcome the crippling effects of self-censorship,” said Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media. An initial study had shown that self-censorship was a major consequence of copyright confusion. In the arenas of greatest innovation, where journalists are developing web-native journalism, there was the greatest confusion.

Like other such community-driven documents facilitated by Profs. Aufderheide and Jaszi, the Set of Principles reduces risk of copyright infringement by clarifying professional community standards. Previous such documents, created by creative communities as diverse as documentary filmmakers, poets, and librarians, have dramatically reduced decision-making time, delays, and costs, without harming markets for copyrighted material.

“What makes this set of principles stand out is the depth and breadth of research that informed their creation,” said Ellyn Angelotti, Esq., faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “The thoughtfulness put into the process for creating the guidelines is an example of best practice in and of itself.” The process of convening journalists through professional associations, in 17 meetings held in 10 cities across the U.S., took a year.

This document will be of value to journalists of all kinds, noted Sandy Close, Executive Director of New America Media. Members of her organization range from print to radio to web-native journalists. The Principles, she said, “will help them make decisions about their own unlicensed uses more efficiently and with greater confidence, and it will also allow them to understand when they should challenge others’ infringing uses of their journalism.”

The Set of Principles is available at, as well as on

American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and nearly 140 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service, and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world.

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Rick Todd
American University
(202) 885-5950
Email >
Visit website