Standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

For the sense in which it is used in the link from the front page of Everything, "fair use" refers to the right to quote small portions of a published work for the purpose of review or parody.

However, for some time, fair use has also allowed limitless duplication of purchased media, as long as all copies were for the sole personal use of the owner. Hence, if you wanted to copy your CDs to cassette for your Walkman or car stereo, why that was perfectly all right (and referred to as "spaceshifting"). In fact, blank cassette tape packages routinely say they are "perfect for CD!" and recent commercials for CD burners have featured teens making their own mix CDs and taking them to dance clubs.

VCRs were also ruled fair game for fair use, when the Supreme Court decided a lawsuit brought by the MPAA in favor of the VCR manufacturers--by taping shows off of TV, you're "timeshifting" them for your own benefit, and that is fair use.

However, fair use has become a particularly hot topic in recent months because of the great DeCSS DVD debacle, and because of My MP3.com.


The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DCMA, introduced a strange new wrinkle to copyright law by making it illegal to circumvent any form of copy protection, or create tools for doing so--even if the purpose for which you are circumventing it is to exercise fair use rights over media you own. This means that corporations now get to rewrite the copyright laws of the land, severely hampering fair use.

The deCSS utility was primarily meant to allow the fair use of DVDs, unlocking the CSS anti-piracy encryption so DVDs could be played on Linux, BSD, and other non-mainstream operating systems which had no DVD player software yet available. However, because it also allowed copying of DVD VOB files (and thus possible (though not probable) DVD piracy), and more importantly broke the DVDCCA's monopoly on licensing DVD players, it sparked a major court battle. The viability of our copyright system today hangs in the balance.

My MP3.com

The other great test of fair use wending its way through the courts today is My MP3.com--a system that allows a consumer to put a music CD in his CD-ROM drive to let the software verify that he owns it, after which he can have the music on that CD streamed to him anywhere on the Internet thanks to My MP3.com's servers. The RIAA and recording studios argue that this is infringement of their copyright--especially since MP3.com is making money off of it with banner ads--whereas MP3.com lawyers claim it is spaceshifting and therefore fair use. This case is also awaiting a decision from the courts.