Monday, June 21, 2010

Can we use screenshots in our book?

Dear Rich: As a rights and permissions editor, I'm finding screenshots are becoming more and more complex to clear. Recently, an author submitted a screenshot that, to me, would require more than 20 permissions. Before I shock everyone with this info, I'd like your input. Our author is writing a "how to" book on IT. One screenshot is part of a lesson on how to arrange her favorite websites for quick location through the Top Sites, website. The second screenshot is the way the author would like to display how a certain website works works. The third screenshot is a music website for a lesson on how to find your favorite music. I believe every trademark used requires permission to use, as well as photos which would have to include a release from the identifiable people within them. Is this correct? Not exactly. You don't need permission to reproduce trademarks in an editorial context like yours (although, to be really safe, you should avoid using screenshots on the cover and in your advertising). 
Copyright issues. Yes, a screenshot is categorized as an infringement because you are copying without permission. However, there is some legal consensus (at least in the U.S.) that thumbnail-styled reductions are permissible as fair use when used for informational purposes--for example, search results, historical timelines, etc. For example, your Top Sites screenshot doesn't need permission because it is a series of thumbnails of other sites and that's apparently considered an acceptable practice within the industry -- obviously Google (Chrome), Apple (Safari) and Microsoft (IE) (all of which offer 'top sites' features) don't seek permission and there is no reason for you, as well. 
As for the other two screenshots ... The Dear Rich Staff regularly uses screenshots without permission in our books because we believe that it is commonly accepted as a fair use, is justified by the recent thumbnail decisions, and perhaps most importantly, no website, unless they are being portrayed horribly, would want to hassle someone who is ultimately promoting their site. It would be a bad legal, tactical and public relations decision. (That said, the more screenshots used from one source, the more likely you might run into a problem. For example, one exception to this -- and it wouldn't apply in your case -- might be if a company wanted to provide the exclusive manual on how to play its video game or operate its software program. In that case there might be a stronger basis for pursuing those who copy screenshots).