Screenshots are a common and convenient tool for visually representing material from software programs or websites. You'll see screenshots in books, magazine articles, newspaper stories and on Web pages, but their common use does not mean anyone can use a screenshot, anytime, without risking infringement. Screenshots are generally covered by copyright and should be used with the permission of the copyright holder.
When you write a book, paint a picture, create a website or produce many other types of creative works, your work is protected by copyright. You are the only one with the legal right to copy, alter, sell or otherwise use your work. Anyone else wishing to do so has to first get your permission. Copyright is automatic from the moment a work exists in tangible form, such as on paper or as an electronic file. You do not need to register the work or take other measures in order for it to be copyright-protected.
Use of Screenshots
A screenshot is a copy of an image that you see on your computer screen. You can take a screenshot by pressing certain keys on your keyboard (they differ by operating system). As a writer or website owner, you may want to take a screenshot from a website or software program that you did not create, and for which you do not have copyright permission. In some cases, the copyright holder might not object to such use, especially if you are using the screenshot in a laudatory manner. However, you cannot assume that the copyright holder will not object to your use. The safest option for avoiding a charge of copyright infringement is to explicitly get permission from the copyright holder to use the screenshot.
Some collections of text and images on a website or in a software program are dynamically created. That is, the image never existed before and may never exist again. These type of images are known as derivative works under copyright law. A derivative work is protected by copyright, just as the original software or website that created the derivation is protected. You must obtain permission to use a screenshot, even if it is a derivative work.
A thumbnail image is a small, low-resolution copy of a larger image such as a screenshot or a digital photograph. Several high-profile legal cases have ruled that you can use thumbnail images as a "fair use" without violating copyright. For example, search engines can display small screenshots of the Web pages included in a search-results page. However, the case law is no guarantee that a copyright holder will not object to your use of thumbnail images of the copyrighted material. You should consider seeking permission for use even for thumbnail images.
Many websites and software programs include contact information for requesting permission for using their copyrighted materials. Sites may also have policies posted online that clarify the circumstances under which their copyrighted material can be used. For example, Microsoft's website includes a page describing the company's copyright policies in general along with specific guidance on using screenshots from Microsoft products.
David Sarokin is a well-known specialist on Internet research. He has been profiled in the "New York Times," the "Washington Post" and in numerous online publications. Based in Washington D.C., he splits his time between several research services, writing content and his work as an environmental specialist with the federal government. David is the author of Missed Information (MIT Press, 2016), a book exploring how better information can lead to a more sustainable future.