I am writing an article comparing three pieces of software. I have taken screen shots of all of them and would like to use them in a non-open access article. Given the intended journal, there is a reasonable chance of the images being on the cover. What are the copyright issues associated with screen shots?

Specifically, one of the pieces of software is free and open source (GPL v2), and two are free as in beer, but closed source with unknown licenses and no EULAs. To further complicate matters one of the closed sourced pieces of software looks and functions very much like a proprietary piece of hardware produced by a massive company. Three years ago I contacted the developer of the software and asked about using a screen shot and he said it was fine. The software is still widely available, but the direct download from the developers site now has text indicating that the massive company has "requested" that it be taken down. I own the physical hardware and am not aware of any crazy licensing restrictions. I could use a photo of the physical hardware if that is better.

  • This won't answer your question, but you might enjoy this article: petapixel.com/2015/05/21/…
    – user16092
    Oct 1, 2015 at 13:01
  • In terms of practical advice. there are two things in your favor: 1. The academic nature of your work and 2. the editorial nature of your work. Both of these put you well into the zone of fair use. Beyond that, it sounds like you would not upset anyone. Copyright law doesn't really get enforced unless the economics are correct. Someone needs to take a loss while someone else has a lot to lose. You should seek legal advice for your own circumstances. In my personal opinion however, common sense may get you a long way as well.
    – user16092
    Oct 1, 2015 at 13:10

2 Answers 2


You need legal advice. Talk to an attorney.

Perhaps your institution has one that you can take advantage of. Everything from here on out is rank speculation, and even your attorney's advice may not protect your from suit.

If you can, get permission from each source you want to take a screen capture of. There may be copyright protectable elements in those screen shots. There may also be trademarked elements.

If you cannot get permission for whatever reason, you may have to rely on fair use. Fair use is a defense to an infringement suit not a get out of jail free card. By using a copyright or trademark protected work without a license, you run the risk of lawsuit. Your institution may not be willing to rely on a fair use defense. Also, your publisher may not be willing to rely on a fair use defense (since they will be the lawsuit target).

I personally think your use is without question a classic and canonical example of fair use, but that doesn't mean that you will prevail in publishing without permission. Many venues require that your sign a form saying that you have the copyright or permission to use all your images, so be careful.

  • Fully agree, very good points. Just an opinion: the publishers themselves generally insist written permission from the original publisher for any republished figures, so most probably they would ask for a written permission in this case, too.
    – Greg
    Jul 29, 2014 at 15:51
  • Are you saying that there is no difference between a screen shot of a GPL and closed source software? How do pictures of hardware come into play. Is hardware even copyrighted or just patented?
    – StrongBad
    Jul 29, 2014 at 16:03
  • @StrongBad: Hardware itself can't be copyright protected. Firmware inside a piece of computer equipment can be. Your photograph of such equipment cannot violate the patent on the hardware nor the copyright on any software it contains. There could be some trademark issues with the logos on such equipment, but there's a pretty strong defense to trademark infringement for uses which are solely for identification of the protected work. I think you're pretty safe to take a picture of a piece of hardware and use it in your article. You will own the copyright in that photo. ...
    – Bill Barth
    Jul 29, 2014 at 16:30
  • In fact, it's better than trying to reuse the manufacturer's sales or marketing pictures, since they hold a copyright in said images! As to screenshots of GPLed software interfaces, I think this is an unsettled area of the law. To my knowledge, the GPL only covers the source code to the software and any graphics elements designed to support it. The Lotus v. Borland case says that the interface functionality itself is not copyright protectable, so a clone of said interface is non-infringing, but if you take a photograph of someone's painting, that's a derivative work requiring a license. ...
    – Bill Barth
    Jul 29, 2014 at 16:37
  • I don't think the GPL applies to an image that you take of the interface thereby infecting your paper with the GPL. It's hard enough to apply the GPL to documents, so I don't think that's an intend effect. That being said, why not just get permission?
    – Bill Barth
    Jul 29, 2014 at 16:38

If there's no explicit prohibition against it in a EULA and it is publicly-available software, just mention the source of the screenshot, either in small print on the cover or in a colophon. Remember the law belongs to you at least as much as them and academics have been too passive in helping courts settle these issues. And the proof of it is shown in other`s answers suggesting you should contact a lawyer. But in the United States, the Law is explicitly reserved for the People, not lawyers. These aren't difficult cases to think about. Academia has been dealing with the issue of fair-use for centuries. Just look at the issue as if it were your own special software, and you'll be able to figure out reasonable and "fair use".

  • 8
    This is terrible advice from a person with legal training! While the sentiment is right, your advice opens its follower to lawsuit which they may not be able to defend. Just because use without permission in this case is in your opinion morally OK and likely a fair use, it's awful, awful, awful advice.
    – Bill Barth
    Aug 2, 2014 at 14:14
  • 1
    @I amended the answer. Sheesh, I mean at some point we have to live with each other. If we live as if we might get sued at anytime, what kind of world would we be creating? The Courts can't defend against the People being stupid.
    – Marxos
    Oct 1, 2015 at 3:30
  • What does "the Law is explicitly reserved for the People, not lawyers" mean? You also appear to be conflating of publication ethics with "fair use," which is a specifically defined term of art.
    – jakebeal
    Oct 1, 2015 at 6:05
  • It means that the law doesn't favor (and mustn't favor) corporations and their legal teams.
    – Marxos
    Oct 1, 2015 at 10:40
  • 4
    @TheDoctor I have no idea how you have come to that conclusion.
    – jakebeal
    Oct 1, 2015 at 11:58

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