Guest Post: The Reason You Should Become Acquainted With Fair Use

Just about every person, brand, and organization in existence has some sort of presence online, whether it’s a blog, a Facebook page, or a Twitter feed. As such, we’re all participating in the creation and sharing of news.

With that in mind, today’s guest post by Andrew Graham, founder of Andrew Graham Media Strategy, a firm focused on finance, energy, and public policy, tackles the topic of fair use – what it means and why it’s important to the PR industry.

Click through to read on. And to learn more about fair use, check out Stanford University’s Copyright & Fair Use Center and American University’s Center for Social Media. If you have additional resources, please share them in the comments.

Public Relations and Fair Use in a Digital Age

“Fair use” isn’t a concept that enters many PR conversations. Here is why it should.

As layoffs loom, publications close, and beats consolidate, it is becoming increasingly important for organizations to not just talk to the ever-shrinking business and financial press, but to go one step further and actively collaborate with it. John Salak, founder of communications consultancy The Salak Group and a friend of mine who enjoys semantics, likes to say that organizations don’t necessarily want to be in the news, they want to have been in the news in order to build new, relevant marketing collateral from that press exposure.

I’d amend his remark to the following: Organizations should aim to participate in the news. This is especially so today, given the ease with which digital media can self-publish content.

Organizations and other non-objective sources are realizing the potential value of participating in the news cycle more proactively. Every organization with a Twitter presence or a blog has an “editorial” strategy of sorts. Because content that promotes a business interest isn’t incompatible with most traditional news values, organizations are increasingly discovering how to strike a delicate balance between the two.

This requires the person or team that is managing the content – usually a hybrid between a PR practitioner and a seasoned copy writer – to confront an uncomfortable area of copyright law that news outlets are not unfamiliar with: the fair use doctrine.

“[F]air use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose such as to comment upon, criticize or parody a copyrighted work,” states an explanation from Stanford University. In other words, it is a legal principle that asserts portions of a copyrighted work can be used freely.

On one hand, it is a limitation that protects copyright holders – in this scenario, news publishers. On the other, it reflects the notion that there is a certain level of openness inherent to a copyright.

Occasionally, this tension leads to a virtual content tug-of-war. A couple years ago, media blog Gawker and The Washington Post had a public spat to this effect, which the Neiman Journalism Lab helpfully summarized.

But both The Washington Post and (I suppose) Gawker are news organizations. What’s not been thoroughly discussed is how fair use might affect companies that self-publish opinion or commentary. Generally, journalism and PR increasingly resemble one another, so it’s logical to think an issue that affects the former probably affects the latter as well.

A recent panel (video) at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society examined how fair use is an important consideration as news outlets move away from long-lead, time-consuming reporting. As interesting as the panel was, it focused too heavily on the institutionalized press, not other participants in the news cycle that may be instrumental in aggregating industry news.

At the organizational level, whoever is tasked with managing content will need an editor’s-level understanding of fair use in order to maximize the value of digital initiatives going forward. And at the very least, PR pros should be aware that despite being excruciatingly insidery, fair use is an important component of the mainstream and online press today.