In the digital world and time that we live in today, it is important to understand the concepts of copyright infringement and fair use. As technology continues to reshape content creation and dissemination, a clear understanding of these concepts is essential for creators, users, and legal practitioners alike.

Understanding Fair Use and Copyright 

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows for the limited use of copyrighted material without the need for permission from the rights holder. It allows individuals to engage in activities which include criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use recognises that certain uses of copyrighted material contribute to the public good by fostering creativity, innovation, and the exchange of ideas.

Copyright grants creators’ exclusive rights over their original works, including literary, artistic, musical, and dramatic creations, as well as sound recordings and cinematographic films. These rights include the exclusive right to reproduce the work, distribute copies, perform or display the work publicly, and create derivative works based on the original. 

The relationship between fair use and copyright highlights the delicate balance between the rights of creators and the broader public interest. While copyright protection encourages the creation and dissemination of original works, fair use ensures that copyright law does not stifle free speech, creativity, or innovation. By allowing for certain limited uses of copyrighted material, primarily of non-profit nature, fair use promotes a vibrant public domain and fosters a rich cultural and intellectual exchange. However, it’s crucial to maintain this balance carefully, ensuring that fair use does not unduly infringe upon the rights of creators or undermine the economic incentives provided by copyright protection.

The Legal Framework in India

The Copyright Act1 provides comprehensive protection for a wide range of creative works, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, as well as cinematographic films and sound recordings. The Act aims to balance the rights of creators with the public interest by granting creators exclusive rights over their works while also allowing for certain exceptions and limitations to promote creativity, education, and access to knowledge.

In India, while the term “fair use” may not be explicitly mentioned in the Copyright Act, the concept is recognised under the doctrine of “fair dealing.” Fair dealing allows for the limited use of copyrighted material for purposes such as research, criticism, review, news reports, teaching, and private study, provided that such use is fair and does not infringe upon the rights of the copyright holder. However, the determination of what constitutes fair dealing is subjective and depends on factors such as the purpose of the use, the nature of the work, and the effect on the potential market for the original work.

The Act contains several key provisions that govern the protection and enforcement of copyright in India, like:

  • Section 13 – Outlines the categories of works eligible for copyright protection
  • Section 14 – Enumerates the exclusive rights granted to copyright holders
  • Section 51 – Defines acts that constitute copyright infringement
  • Section 52 – Provides for certain exceptions to copyright infringement, including fair dealing provisions

Fair Use vs. Infringement: Key Differences

Fair use is a legal doctrine that permits the use of copyrighted material for purposes such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder. However, fair use is subject to certain factors, including the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and the effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work. 

In contrast, copyright infringement occurs when someone violates one of the exclusive rights granted to the copyright holder under the Copyright Act, such as the right to reproduce, distribute, perform, or display the copyrighted work without authorisation.

It is crucial for creators, users, and distributors of copyrighted material to understand the boundaries between fair use and infringement to avoid potential legal repercussions. Failure to adhere to these boundaries can result in costly litigation, damages, and injunctions, which can significantly impact businesses, individuals, and organisations.

Case: R.G. Anand v. Deluxe Films2

The landmark case of R.G. Anand v. M/s Deluxe Films sheds light on the nuances of copyright law, particularly regarding the protection of ideas versus their expression. 

Facts of the case:

Architect and playwright R.G. Anand created the play “Hum Hindustani,” which gained popularity. Film director Mohan Sehgal expressed interest in adapting the play into a movie. However, after discussions, Sehgal proceeded to produce “New Delhi,” allegedly based on Anand’s play. Anand sued for copyright infringement.


The court ruled that while both works explored the concept of provincialism, they were distinct in their expression. It emphasised that copyright does not protect ideas but their specific manifestation. The judgement set precedents in defining substantial similarity and copyrightability of ideas.

Analysis of the Judgment:

The case highlights the crucial distinction between ideas and expressions in copyright law. It establishes that copyright infringement occurs when there is substantial similarity in expression, not merely in ideas. The judgement’s guidelines on determining copyright infringement remain relevant in contemporary legal interpretations.

This case contributes significantly to understanding the boundaries of fair use and infringement. It clarifies that while ideas are not protected, their unique expression is. By establishing guidelines for assessing substantial similarity, the judgement helps navigate complex copyright disputes, ensuring a fair balance between creators’ rights and public interest.

Case: Google v. Oracle3

Facts of the case: 

In Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., Google used Java code owned by Oracle for its Android operating system. Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement, alleging that Google’s use of the Java API code violated their patents and copyrights.


The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Google, stating that its use of the Java code constituted fair use under copyright law.

Analysis of the Judgment: 

The Court emphasised the distinction between the interface specifications and the implementation code, noting that while ideas are not copyrightable, their expressions are. It applied the four criteria of fair use outlined in the Copyright Act, finding that Google’s use was transformative, had a legal and transformative purpose, used only what was necessary, and had minimal impact on the market for the original work. This decision sets a precedent for the copyrightability of APIs and the scope of fair use in software development. It clarifies that transformative use of copyrighted material may be permissible under fair use, providing guidance for future cases involving similar issues. These ruling balances the interests of copyright holders and promotes innovation within the software industry.

Case: LIC v. Professor Manubhai D. Shah4

The Supreme Court of India ruled that the right to respond to criticism is integral to freedom of expression. The case involved two instances where state-controlled entities refused to publish or broadcast content critical of the government. The Court emphasised that when government-controlled platforms censor content, they must provide legally valid reasons.


Two incidents were at the centre of the case:

  • An academic publication criticised LIC’s schemes, and although LIC published a reply, it refused to publish the author’s rejoinder.
  • A documentary on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy won awards and was slated to be broadcast on Doordarshan, but the channel declined to air it.


The Court held that freedom of expression includes the right to defend one’s views. It placed a greater burden on state-controlled publications to justify censorship. Rejecting claims of discretion, the Court emphasised that when the state rejects content, it must provide legally valid reasons. Reasons such as presenting only one side of the debate were deemed inadequate, as they infringed on the right to express differing perspectives.

Analysis of the Judgement:

This case highlights the importance of the right to respond to criticism in freedom of expression. It sets a precedent for state-controlled entities, requiring them to provide valid reasons for content censorship. By ensuring transparency and accountability in censorship decisions, the ruling upholds the principles of democracy and free speech.

Present-Day Circumstances and Challenges

The digital age has brought about unprecedented access to information and content-creation tools. However, this transformation has made the distinction between copyright infringement and fair use more ambiguous. Determining the boundaries of fair use has become increasingly complex, with how easy it is to copy, repurpose, and reproduce content online and share it across multiple channels. Content creators, consumers, and legal entities grapple with the intricacies of digital reproduction and dissemination.

From user-generated content on social media platforms to streaming services delivering a vast array of entertainment, technology has democratised content creation. However, this democratisation also presents challenges in enforcing Copyright laws and protecting creators’ rights. The rise of AI-generated content brings further complications, raising questions about ownership and attribution.

In India, courts are increasingly confronted with cases involving digital piracy, online streaming, and intellectual property rights infringement. Legislative efforts aim to modernise copyright laws to address emerging challenges while balancing the interests of creators and consumers. The evolution of Indian copyright law underscores the need for adaptability and responsiveness to the shifting paradigms of content creation and distribution in the digital era.

Handling Fair Use in the Digital Age

Navigating fair use in the digital age requires a nuanced understanding of legal principles and practical considerations to ensure compliance while fostering creativity and innovation.

Tips for creators and users on navigating fair use in the digital landscape:

  • Understand the four factors5: Familiarise yourself with the four factors that courts consider when determining fair use – purpose, nature, amount, and effect of the use. Assess your use of copyrighted material against these factors to determine if it falls within fair use.
  • Conduct a fair use analysis: Before using copyrighted material, conduct a fair use analysis to evaluate whether your intended use qualifies as fair use. Consider the purpose of your use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of material used, and the potential market impact.
  • Attribute properly: When using copyrighted material, provide proper attribution to the original creator or copyright holder. Giving credit where it’s due demonstrates respect for creators’ rights and can mitigate potential legal issues.
  • Seek permission: If in doubt about whether your use of copyrighted material qualifies as fair use, seek permission from the copyright owner before proceeding. Obtaining permission ensures legal clarity and avoids infringement claims.
  • Stay informed: Stay updated on changes to copyright laws and fair use guidelines, especially in the rapidly evolving digital landscape. Awareness of legal developments empowers creators and users to make informed decisions.

Understanding fair use guidelines is essential for creators and users alike to navigate the complexities of copyright law. While many cases may seem straightforward, seeking legal advice when uncertainties arise can provide clarity and mitigate potential legal risks. Legal professionals specialising in copyright law can offer tailored guidance based on specific circumstances, ensuring compliance and protecting against infringement claims.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is the difference between infringement and fair use?

Infringement occurs when someone violates the exclusive rights granted to a copyright holder without permission. Fair use, on the other hand, is an exception to infringement that allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.

2. What is the fair use exception to infringement?

Fair use is a legal doctrine that permits the use of copyrighted material without obtaining permission from the copyright holder under certain circumstances. It serves as a defence against claims of copyright infringement by allowing limited use for purposes such as commentary, criticism, parody, or educational use.

3. What is the main difference between copyright and fair use?

Copyright grants exclusive rights to creators to control the use and distribution of their original works. fair use, however, is an exception to these rights, allowing limited use of copyrighted material without permission for specific purposes such as criticism, commentary, or education.

4. What is fair use in the Copyright Act?

Fair use is codified in the Copyright Act as a doctrine that permits the limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. It is outlined in Section 107 of the Act and provides guidelines for determining whether a particular use qualifies as fair use.

5. What is the difference between fair use and fair dealing?

Fair use is a legal doctrine in U.S. copyright law that permits certain limited uses of copyrighted material without permission. Fair dealing, on the other hand, is a similar concept in some other jurisdictions, including India and the UK, but may have different criteria and limitations compared to fair use.

In conclusion, understanding the delicate balance between fair use and copyright protection is crucial in navigating the complexities of the digital age. It’s imperative for individuals, whether creators or users of copyrighted material, to stay informed about fair use guidelines and seek legal advice when necessary. By doing so, we can ensure that intellectual property rights are upheld while fostering a culture of creativity and free expression.


  1. The Copyright Act, 1957
  2.,an%20act%20of%20piracy%20so < last accessed on 03/05/2024 >
  3. < last accessed on 13/05/2024 >
  4. < last accessed on 03/05/2024 >
  5. The four-factor test – 
Koushik Banerjee

Trademark Attorney

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