Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Legal Use of Software or Website Screenshots

Since I have started writing this blog and publishing to the "public" internet, questions that I never really thought of before and took for granted have started to enter my mind. One of the questions I had was concerning the legal use of software screenshots in a blog or other public publication. I am not a lawyer and I do not really have the means to hire my own copyright lawyer so I headed off to Google to do some research into the use of  screenshots.

Generally screenshots of software or websites are covered by copyright, however in the U.S. there is a rule called "Fair Use" which allows for the criticism, review, news reporting, teaching and research of a copyrighted work without getting permission from the copyright holder. Wikipedia has an excellent entry about "Fair Use", and there is also a mention of copyright issues in regards to screenshots on the Wikipedia entry for screenshots.

Now copyright law is full of shades of grey and one persons interpretation of a law could be completely different from another, so if you want to play it really safe, just ask the copyright owner for permission to use their screenshots.  If you are using the screenshots as part of a "how to" tutorial then most of the time they would be thrilled for the free publicity, just be sure to be honest in how you will be using their screenshots.

If you do some searching on the internet then you may not necessarily have to go through the hassle of contacting the copyright owners for permission (especially larger software/internet companies). A lot of wise companies do not want to waste time on answering copyright requests and have posted guidelines for the acceptable use of screenshots on their websites. Below I have posted some summaries of Google's, Microsofts, Yahoo's and Abobe's screenshot policy.

Google Screenshot Policy:

Google takes a liberal common sense approach to use of their screenshots. Basically you can use them for illustrative or instructional purposes. From their website examples it appears that some minor alterations are acceptable (eg: you want to circle an area of a Google screenshot to highlight a feature).  You can not use them in a way that implies that Google endorses yourself or your products.  This is common sense. Their policy is fair for everyone and is another reason why I believe Google is a well run company.

Microsoft Screenshot Policy:

The guys from Redmond have a slightly more restrictive policy than Google. You are allowed to use their screenshots except if the use is obscene or pornographic and you can not use Microsoft screenshots for comparative advertising.  This is fair enough, but as you drill down further into their screenshot policy you find some more restrictions. You are not allowed to use screenshots of beta software. You can not use portions of a screenshot (this seems to be a common policy - why not?), you must include an attribution statement, stating Microsoft gave you permission to use your screenshots and you can not use screenshots that contain an image of an identifiable person (that's a good policy I think). Their are other restrictions as well and you can click the link above to read Microsoft's full policy.

Yahoo Screenshot Policy:

In a nutshell is very restrictive. You can not use screenshots of Yahoo products without first filling out their permission request form, and asking for their permission. Boo on Yahoo.

Adobe's Screenshot Policy:

Adobe's policy is very similar to Microsofts (maybe they hired the same law firm). According to Adobe's guidelines you can't use portions of a screenshot (again - why not?) without Adobe's permission. You can not use screenshots that contain third party images. The obvious no pornographic or obscene use.  You must attribute the image to Adobe, and you can not imply that Adobe sponsors you or supports you. Again their are others restrictions and you can click the link above for their full policy.

Now remember that corporate policy is not the same as legal law. Meaning that just because a company does not want you to do something does not mean that you can not legally do it.

I am definitely not a lawyer but I believe that most uses of screenshots on a blog that are used for instructional, illustrative or review purposes would fall under the "Fair Use" guidelines and requesting copyright permission is not required. This is just my laymen's interpretation. You should use your own judgement

Basically trust your gut and your morals. If your gut tells you are stealing someone else's work than save yourself the anxiety and don't publish it or ask the company for permission.

Hope this information was helpful.


  1. Very Very Interesting Information. Thanks sharing information.

  2. Thanks for the information. It is strange that it might be illegal to capture an image of something published publically (say a webpage); an analogy would be taking a photo of a public statue.

    Has anyone ever been prosecuted for having posted screenshots of a website?

  3. Appreciate the info. I was wondering about the legality of video captures for commercial training purposes. With the speed of computers and internet connections nowadays, videos are becoming more and more popular. Seems like the software manufacturers would benefit from the exposure.