College Art Association Report on Copyright and Fair Use

The College Art Association (with a membership of 13 000 practitioners) is the principal professional association in the United States for practitioners and scholars of art, art history, and art criticism. Members consists of  academics, professors, and graduate students who study and/or teach art practice, history, or theory, including visual arts, visual culture, and aesthetics. The CAA represented through

• Patricia Aufderheide, professor, School of Communication, and director, Center for Media & Social Impact, American University • Peter Jaszi, professor, Washington College of Law, American University
• Bryan Bello, graduate fellow, Center for Media & Social Impact, School of Communication, American University
• Tijana Milosevic, graduate fellow, Center for Media & Social Impact, School of Communication, American University

released the following report as part one of a  four-phase plan to develop a Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in the Creation and Curation of Artworks and Scholarly Publishing in the Visual Arts:


The visual arts communities of practice share a common problem in their confusion about and misunderstanding of the nature of copyright law and the availability of fair use. Their work is constrained and censored, most powerfully by themselves, because of that confusion and the resulting fear and anxiety.

The visual arts field is pervaded with a “permissions culture,” the widespread acceptance that all new uses of copyrighted material must be expressly authorized. This assumption has taken its toll on practice in every area of the visual arts field, adversely affecting the work of art historians, museums, publishers, and artists. As digital opportunities emerge, old frustrations with this permissions culture have taken on a new urgency.

The permissions culture is expensive in terms of both money and time, but artists and other professionals in this field rarely embrace the copyright doctrine of fair use: the right, under certain circumstances, to use copyrighted material without permission.

The reasons why visual arts professionals ignore fair use include: • an exaggerated assessment of risk, because of a lack of clarity around interpretation of fair use, lack of copyright knowledge generally, and excessive fear of litigation
• the importance attached to maintaining good relationships with individuals and entities who hold, or claim, rights
• a determination to honor artistic creativity, the generative force for the entire field

But many in the field need to access copyrighted work without permission in order to accomplish their professional missions.

In the absence of confidence regarding how to take advantage of the right of fair use, professionals cope by overspending on permissions; delaying projects for months, years, or even decades to negotiate permissions; compromising projects by doing without important material; and even abandoning some projects altogether.

In fact, while permissions may be required for some kinds of artistic and scholarly projects, in many cases they are not. The pervasive permissions culture, exercised as if fair use were not available to the visual arts communities, changes and even deforms the work produced. These losses affect future generations and the future of the field itself.

Uncertainty about copyright and fair use within the visual arts communities is a problem that the communities themselves can address. The biggest single issue for professionals is understanding their rights as new users of existing copyrighted material. This can be remedied not only by educational projects but by the formation of a consensus within the communities of practice about the shape of a code of best practices in fair use for the visual arts. Such codes have vastly improved access to fair use for other communities of practice.

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