Is it Fair Use? Or Infringement?  

Medical Illustration and Animation Use Under U.S. Copyright Law

In today’s digital age, visual content like medical illustration and animation play a pivotal role in conveying complex information to a wide audience. Whether you’re a healthcare professional, educator, or content creator, it’s important to understand the legal aspects surrounding the use of these copyrighted materials.

This blog post aims to help demystify the concepts of “fair use” and “infringement” within the context of U.S. copyright law, helping our prospects and customers make informed decisions when using medical illustrations and animations.

Fair Use: A Brief Overview
Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows the limited use of copyrighted material without seeking permission from the copyright owner. It’s important to note that fair use is not an absolute right but rather a flexible and context-dependent exception to copyright restrictions. The U.S. Copyright Act provides four factors that courts typically consider when determining whether a use qualifies as fair use.

An important caveat: These four factors are reviewed in context with no single factor ever representing a “slam-dunk” either way.

1.     Purpose and Character of Use: If the use is transformative (i.e., it adds new meaning, message, or context) and serves purposes such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research regarding the work, that is a factor tending to favor  fair use.

Keep in mind: Using a medical illustration in support of a topic being taught is not “fair use” even in the context of education. Our medical illustrations are, indeed, licensed for a fee for our users to educate their audience. That’s how we make our living. If you appropriate one of our images and claim it’s for “education” and the application is not to parody, criticize, teach or report about the work as the subject of your presentation, it is likely infringement and not a “fair use.”

To put it more simply…

If the copyrighted work is the subject of the use: Possibly a fair use.

If the copyrighted work is used in support of the topic: Likely not a fair use.

2.     Nature of the Copyrighted Work: The nature of the original work matters. Copying factual content like addresses or phone numbers Is more likely to be a fair use, compared to copying and using fictional or highly detailed, creative works, such as our high-quality medical illustration and animation.

3.     Amount and Substantiality: The extent of the portion used in relation to the whole copyrighted work is crucial. Using a small portion of the work can be a factor in determining whether a use is fair, but it is not by itself determinative.  For example, using the heart of a work might may be only a small portion, but may still fail to be a fair use.

To understand this better, it’s helpful to compare a copyrighted book (text) to a copyrighted illustration (image). Under this factor, it might be considered a fair use to use a few sentences from an entire textual book, but it likely would not be a fair use to any significant portion of an image or animation.  In addition, if a publisher uses just one of your illustrations in a 100-illustration book, such a use would likely not be considered fair even though your image represents only 1% of the book. The percentage of use concerns the portion of the copyrighted work that Is used, not the portion of the end product in which it is used.

4.     Effect on the Market: If the use negatively impacts the market value of the copyrighted work, that factor weighs against a finding of fair use.  However, if the new use doesn’t compete with the original work’s market or serves a different purpose, then such facts may lean more toward fair use.

As you can see, fair use Is a fact-intensive inquiry that Is not easily analyzed and will depend on all the facts of a given situation.  Often, infringers mistakenly believe their use is fair when, on further review, it is not. 

Infringement: Understanding the Boundaries
Copyright infringement occurs when someone uses copyrighted material without authorization, violating the exclusive rights of the copyright owner. Infringement can lead to legal consequences, including injunctions, monetary damages, and an award of legal fees.

Keep in mind: In any legal matter involving a fair use dispute, the burden of proving fair use is on the alleged infringer, not on the creator to prove it isn’t fair use. An infringement is assumed to NOT be fair use unless it’s proven to be fair use in court.

To avoid infringement when using medical illustrations and animations:

1.     Obtain Proper Permissions: If you intend to use copyrighted materials, seek permission from the copyright owner. This might involve obtaining licenses or releases.

2.     Purchase Stock Medical Illustrations or Animations: Many stock image websites offer high-quality visual content that you can purchase and use legally. Make sure to review the licensing terms and restrictions before using the purchased content.

3.     Create Original Content: Where possible, consider creating your own illustrations and animations. This ensures you have complete control over your content and avoids any potential copyright issues.

4.     Credit the Source: If you’re using anyone else’s content, even if you firmly believe it falls under fair use, you should credit the original source. This demonstrates transparency and respect for the creators, and helps protect the creator from others copying their work from you.

Striking the Balance
Navigating the complexities of fair use and infringement when using medical illustrations and animations is essential for maintaining legal and ethical standards. Understanding the four factors of fair use and respecting the boundaries of copyright law helps ensure that you’re using these visual materials in a responsible and compliant manner. By being informed and mindful, you can harness the power of medical illustrations and animations to effectively communicate while respecting the rights of content creators.

Remember, this article provides general information and should not be construed as legal advice. For specific legal concerns, consult a qualified attorney well-versed in copyright law.