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Several times I have considered including a screenshot of copyrighted material (e.g. software, digital content) into my questions for the sake of clarification to readers. Sometimes a screenshot can capture information that would otherwise be impossible or too time-consuming to reproduce as "my own work". Including the screenshot image would be, however, without permission of the copyright owner. Is there any acceptable way to include the copyrighted image in a question without permission? Or would my question get flagged or otherwise be reported as copyright infringement?

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If you're posting a screenshot of something you're talking about, I generally consider that trivial. Let legal deal with the trolls if they come, but unless you have a specific case you're pointing to besides a ridiculous one from here about a month back, don't sweat it and just post up.

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  • that's a relief; I'll post up and let them tear it down at the worst – T. Webster May 22 '13 at 6:50
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Screenshots of copyrighted software is by default subject to the copyright of the software. However, when you are using the screenshot to illustrate a discussion of the software operation, this generally falls under fair use or some similar provision (the exact extent of these provisions depends on the jurisdiction but the core principle is the same).

This may not prevent the copyright holder from requesting the takedown of the screenshots, as happened recently on Cryptography Stack Exchange, where a company tried to suppress criticism of their software based on their ownership of the copyright of screenshots used in an answer — the end result was that the screenshots were removed by Stack Exchange (they didn't really have a choice given current US law) but the discussion remains (plus some bad publicity for the company).

So go ahead and post screenshots if they illustrate your point. You'll be morally and legally in the right. Of course someone can sue you, because anyone can sue anyone, but you wouldn't be taking any specific risk worth mentioning.

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    Nitpick: "Screenshots of copyrighted software is by default subject to the copyright of the software" - Actually, it's more complicated than that -- this is not necessarily accurate. Whether a screenshot is protected by copyright depends on a number of non-trivial factors. But, your comment about "fair use" generally allowing it, and your bottom line conclusions, sound right to me. – D.W. May 27 '13 at 3:07
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Copyright law is in place to protect authors from having their work stolen and them loosing their business. That was at least the original intention. From that perspective the exemptions were added such as the right to cite people.

Also from that perspective, you're not stealing anyone's business by posting a screenshot, so it should be fine with the original intention of the law. Moreover, if you state where the screenshot or citation came from and don't use too large a piece, you're practically advertising for them.

Mind you, I haven't studied the exact phrasing of the American copyright laws and jurisdiction might differ slightly. Since the interconnectivity of our world offers lots of way to illegally copy work, lots of big companies have entire legal teams to take down anything and everything they see. However I've never heard of a case where the uploader of a screenshot (or such) got sued without any kind of warning.

In short, don't let something that you think should be okay prevent you from posting better answers. Be cautious, but as long as you handle things with respect (as you seem to), it should be fine.

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