Scanning Around With Gene: Fair Use Goes to the Movies

This week, I planned to look at type designs in the movie “Citizen Kane.” But when I got up to more than 25 screenshots, I realized I was pushing the limits of what could be considered “fair use” of the copyrighted film. Since strongly affirms artists’ rights and frowns on copyright violations, I decided instead to share a variety of my favorite film titles and use the opportunity to talk about the fair use doctrine of the United States copyright law.

Fair use is a concept that allows the limited use of copyrighted material for purposes of criticism, commentary, news reporting, research, teaching, scholarship, or parody. It’s a very tricky concept to define, however, so, I’ll try to explain it as best I can as I comment on the film titles below.

Here, from two of my favorite films, are the opening titles to “Citizen Kane” and John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” (which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1941). Both are terrific movies and pretty good titles. Click on any image for a larger version.

A number of today’s images are used with permission from the excellent website Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page, which has more than 6,600 different title shots. The rest are from my personal DVD collection.

Fair use is measured against four factors by a judge, who tries to weigh the public’s rights to free expression against those of the copyright holder. There are no clear-cut rules for deciding what constitutes fair use and no automatic categories that are sure to pass muster.

Here are several great three-dimensional titles from the 1950 version of “D.O.A.,” the 1949 King Vidor adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (a must see if only for the architectural drawings), and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 spy thriller “The 39 Steps.”

The first factor in determining fair use is “the purpose and character” of the use: Is it for educational purposes, is it commercial or non-commercial, and is it generally for stimulating creativity or does it exploit the copyrighted work? A judge may require the user to demonstrate how the use advances knowledge or the progress of arts through the addition of something new (like commentary, context, or parody).

My favorite newspaper movie is Billy Wilder’s 1951 classic “Ace in the Hole,” which came out the year after one of Wilder’s more famous efforts, “Sunset Blvd.” “Ace in the Hole” is now available for the first time on DVD from The Criterion Collection.

The second factor in determining fair use is the “nature of the copyrighted work.” A fictional or creative work is more likely to be protected than a factual one — facts and ideas are separate from copyright. But the artistic quality of a work or even whether it was published is not necessarily a determining factor. More important is if there is an obvious public interest in the work being reproduced.

I love the movie “All About Eve,” from 1950, and particularly the credits’ typestyle, which was widely used by Twentieth Century Fox on a number of its films from that era, including another Joseph Mankiewicz comedy, the 1951 “People Will Talk”

Go to page 2 for more movies and more fair-use information.

Posted on: July 30, 2010

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

9 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Fair Use Goes to the Movies

  1. and not one word about the actual fonts used in any them.
    maybe in another episode?

  2. As Gene notes, most of the typefaces were hand drawn, and the creators were usually not credited.

  3. Lots! Titles should be a work of art in themselves. Often they can be the frosting on the cake! Thanks! I think I’ll go watch an oldie! 😉

  4. Seems to me readers likely to see this column are reminded rather than educated about “fair use”; those who need the admonition are probably elsewhere, ripping off artists of one stripe or another. Me? I’m going to guess posting the fair-use paragraphs as a complete document is a little “iffy”, but when the (newsgroup) situation calls for a concise and considered explanation, I might just argue “Education! Good of the society!”


    Frank S

  5. How does the uk copyright laws differ from the us. And as the web is global, if say a uk resident infringed USA fair use law, could they be prosecuted under US law.

  6. awesome tutorial! really helpful for me :) thanks a lot.

    Color Experts International

  7. Here’s a good example of unfair use:

    Scanning others’ art and then sharing online without any commentary or instruction is not ‘fair use’. The images in that article have since been corrected but there is still no commentary or educational lesson directly from the author. Discussing the location from where images were bought is not ‘commentary’.

  8. In fact none of these titles were created with typefaces or fonts. They were all hand-drawn or painted by lettering artists, even the small letters. Fonts were made from metal back then and were too limited and inflexible to do the rich, illustrative designs like these that they wanted for movie titles. It wasn’t really until the Sixties that it was common to see actual typefaces on movie titles, mainly because of the flexibility that phototypesetting brought.

  9. Interesting article, Gene. Great to see all those titles. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. Even so, I think the copyright laws stifle creativity and are badly in need of change. Opt in rather than opt out would be a good start. One suggestion…you could make it clear that fair use is not a bar to a law suit by the copyright holder, only a defense that can be raised to a suit. You danced around it.

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