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When writing a paper which, as an aside, talks about the design of a user interface on a particular piece of software, can one insert a (correctly labeled and referenced) screenshot of the software to help readers understand - or does that cause copyright issues?

For example, I wouldn't use a photo unless I held the copyright, or a diagram - but I'm unsure of the legal position of a screenshot...

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If you're displaying the screenshot as part of a paper on user interface, the use of the screenshot will almost certainly fall under "fair use." Make sure you cite the software properly, and you should be all set.

  • 1
    If there are restrictions, you can always ask for permission to include the screenshot in your paper! – aeismail May 20 '13 at 18:13
  • To add to @aeismail's comment: And people who develop software are usually very happy when someone reuses their work and give them appropriate citations. – Mitra Nov 9 '16 at 22:00
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The answer, like many copyright questions, is complicated.

First, the images of the software interface is almost certainly copyrighted. As a result, the exclusive rights to reproduce images of the applicatoin lie with the copyright holder (i.e., the creator of the software.

However, as another answer has suggested, the use of a single screenshot of an application should almost certainly qualify as Fair Use under US copyright law or something similar and analogous under other systems. In other words, it's a small and relative inconsequential reproduction that you can do without having to ask for permission.

However, fair use is notoriously tricky and subjective. there is a multi-prong balancing test at the heart of fair use that is complicated and that makes it hard to know for sure whether a use if fair or not. As a result, many journals are risk averse and will systematically block many types of "probably fair" uses. I've had difficult conversations with production staff members and editors about the use of software screenshots before.

I would say go ahead and try to have the conversation with your journal editor or production staff. The worst thing they can do is ask you to take it out. This, of course, is what you would do preemptively now if you choose not to include it in the first place.

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Definitely, but one major issue will be resolution. A screen shot will typically yield a very low resoluton image which for most journals will be too low (recommendations are ypically 300 dpi in the final published figure size, which is usually impossible to achieve with screenshots. I would therefore recommend to make use of any possibility to zoom the window and then make a screen shot of the window as large as possible on the screen. If you are designing your user interface as you state in the question you could consider making a mock-up of the interface that is identical in every respect but which is based on higher resolution graphics, vectorized or bitmap based. Since you have access to all the original graphics elemnts this should not be difficult.

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    I disagree. Screenshots should be printed at normal screen resolution, so that they look as much as possible like the screen. – JeffE May 20 '13 at 16:55
  • I've found that including screenshots in papers at normal screen resolution works fine in a two-column format, simply because a figure in that format is pretty small to begin with, and because screen resolutions are decent these days. The one caveat I have is that text can be unreadable unless the program has the ability to increase the font size. – Chris Gregg May 20 '13 at 16:58
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    As a former professional printer, I highly recommend printing out that page with screenshot from your doc or PDF on a regular printer and see how it looks. On an iMac with a 1920x1080 desktop resolution, the 300dpi equivalent of a full screenshot is a crisp 6.4 x 3.6 inch image. If one has access to Photoshop this is achieved by Image->Image Size, untick "Resample Image", then set resolution to 300. The resulting dimensions is the non-resampled image size at press-quality resolution. – BrianH May 20 '13 at 18:41
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Generally yes, you're allowed to use screenshots that you create yourself.

Depending on the publisher, they might ask for copyright approvals on the screenshots.

I believe that, as long as you yourself created the screenshot, you're the owner of it (just as if you take a photograph of something, you hold the copyright, not the creator of whatever you're photographing), but this is still, I believe, a legal grey area.

As mentioned, be sure that you provide a proper citation to the software.

  • This answer is not generally correct: Depending on the jurisdiction, the publishing of photos of copyrighted works of art, for example, can be highly problematic for the photographer. – O. R. Mapper Aug 26 '14 at 14:15

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