Fair Use Basics

Created: March 2017

Last Updated: April 2020

This learning experience is part of a playlist — two or more learning experiences focused on specific areas of the digital world. You can find this playlist, Sharing Your Work Online — What License to Use?, here. This particular learning experience is the second in a sequence of six. Learning experiences in a playlist build off of each other, but they were designed so that they can also be completed on their own! 

Estimated time:

35 minutes

  • [10 minutes] Activity
  • [25 minutes] Challenge
Group or individual activity:Individual
Ages:13-18 years old
Grades:Grades 8-12
Online / offline elements:This learning experience contains an offline activity and a challenge that requires a computer or mobile device with Internet access.

Main area: Law

Additional areas: Content Production

License:This learning experience has been created by Youth and Media and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution­ShareAlike 4.0 International license. For more information, please visit https://dcrp.berkman.harvard.edu/about

Learning Goal

Identify the four factors of Fair Use.


  • Computer or mobile device with Internet access

  • [Optional] Paper

  • [Optional] Pen or pencil



Sometimes, we want to build upon copyrighted work made by others to generate commentary or criticize the original content. For instance, while watching Game of Thrones, you might take a screenshot and caption it with something funny. But wait, Game of Thrones is under Copyright. Is every “Winter is Coming” meme breaking the law?

Brace yourselves: a defense against Copyright is coming!

U.S. courts have ruled that copying to make something new is allowed if the copying is done for a limited and transformative reason. 

By limited, we mean that the new work isn’t just an exact copy of the original.

What U.S. courts mean by “transformative” is not as straightforward! “Transformative” uses generally include using copyrighted material to comment, criticize, or parody, but judges decide whether or not something is “Fair Use” on a case-by-case basis with a four-factor test. 

Digital technologies allow us to build upon copyrighted works in ways that may be Fair Use. Remixing and creating new works out of images, sound, code, video, and other media can all be “Fair Uses,” depending on how they are used. Memes, video mash-ups, and documentaries are transformative works that use copyrighted materials. How do we know whether a particular use is Fair Use? Check out some of the Resources above to learn more.

Once you’ve learned about Fair Use and created a meme based on this legal concept, you’ll learn more about content that is not under Fair Use or Copyright.


Create a meme using the templates on imgflip.com. Write a paragraph discussing why your meme is an example of Fair Use, including at least one to two factors of Fair Use in your explanation. Consider who the original creator of the image you used for your meme was, when the image was created, and why he / she made the original image.

Next Steps 

Amazing job on completing this challenge! We know that others would love to see what you learned! We encourage you to share your write-up with a mentor, educator, or a family member or friend. We invite you to also share your write-up with the Youth and Media team through email (youthandmedia@cyber.harvard.edu). Please note the title of the learning experience in the subject line of the email. 


Individual vs. Group 
Release Date 
April, 2020