Are Gaming Screenshots Copyrighted?

The question often comes up on whether or not gaming screenshots are copyrighted, especially for gaming bloggers and YouTubers. What is copyrighted? What is Fair Use? Where do the lines of each begin and end? These are questions that can get very complicated. I want to help make clear this situation for creators, but the all important legal disclaimer:

This is not legal advice, I am not a lawyer, and this should NOT be considered legal advice or practice of any kind.

That said, there is a lot of information out there on the topic and it’s important if you’re going to be writing, reviewing, or creating in the video game space to understand common practices and rules – especially because of the often confusing “gray” areas of copyright vs fair use law in this matter, the necessary promotion of games and world of online influencers mean even if the material is copyright protected by the company

The short answer as currently upheld by U.S. courts is that a screenshot is technically the property of the video game creator, since it is the image of a copyrighted work. However, practically, a screenshot is seen as so little of a complete copyright protected work that it almost always falls under Fair Use based on Section 107 of Title 17 of the United States Code.

So screenshots are the intellectual property of the video game creator, but can be freely used for non-commercial purposes by influencers, reviewers, and content creators under the prevue of Fair Use.

screenshot law scales of justice
Things can get complicated when looking at copyright, fair use, and video game screenshots.

Gaming: An Industry Built on Fair Use

Video game companies need to fight tooth and nail for the attention of gamers, and with how much money gets invested into a game, it’s safe to say that getting influencers to play the games and bloggers to write reviews of the games are important. Exposure is a good thing, and refusing to allow creators to use screenshots just cuts off one avenue of free exposure.

Because of this, even though screenshots are the intellectual property of the game developers, they are often used by bloggers and writers without concern.

The company gets free publicity and further exposure, and writers, bloggers, and YouTubers get to use pictures outside of any limited media releases.

That’s a win-win for all involved, and creates this relatively unique scenario where it’s in the best interest of the copyright holder to not enforce general online usage.

Are Screenshots Fair Use and Copyrighted?

Screenshots of video games often fall under BOTH being copyrighted but also being protected under application of fair use. Let me explain. In games where not every player looks alike or in games like those found in the farm-sim genre of video games where every single farm and character can look different, there is a weird scenario where the overall copyright belongs to the company or creator of the game while the player also has a copyright claim to their original creation within the game (the screenshot).

This doesn’t override the copyright of the creator, but in theory is sort of a “sub-copyright” that in theory should protect

Let’s take a look at this screenshot below as an example.

quality sprinkler setup Stardew Valley
Truthio, meet readers. Readers, Truthio.

ConcernedApe was the creator of Stardew Valley and therefore he would own the copyright to this screenshot. However, since the character and farm layout is unique to my playthrough, in theory there are also copyright protections for me from someone else taking the screenshot and just ripping it off elsewhere.

Now is there really anything I can do if someone else just nabs it for their own post or scrapes it onto another site? Realistically, not really. There are many sites and bloggers who still treat this as stealing content and will not work with individuals caught doing this on a consistent basis, but it’s not like a DMCA claim works for a screenshot.

The best you can do if your screenshot is taken is to reach out and try to get that citation link.

Pro Tip: When in doubt, cite the original source if you’re using someone else’s screenshot! If you have a link to the original source, then you’re citing the source and erasing any doubt that you are at least working in good faith.

Don’t Take Other People’s Screenshots

While arguments abound around exact legality of how copyright apply to screenshots, there is one solid rule that should be followed: NEVER take other people’s screenshots without permission, and if you get permission, ALWAYS provide a link back to the original taker of the screenshot.

Generally speaking you can:

  • Take screenshots to include in blog posts
  • Use screenshots as part of YouTube videos
  • Stream most games without fear of retribution (after all, it’s free advertising)
  • Share screenshots on social media
  • Use digital assets from a game for graphics or screenshots IF the creator has expressly given permission (see ConcernedApe as a classic example)

Generally speaking you can’t:

  • Create products or sell merchandise based on screenshots or game

You can but you shouldn’t (for ethical, moral, and common practice reasons):

  • Copy or use someone else’s screenshot

Keep in mind that this doesn’t change the fact that the ownership is with the creator. Creators like Concerned Ape (Eric Barone) have been extremely open with wanting to allow creators to use his music, screenshots, and stream his game with no fear of copyright issue.

If he changed his mind tomorrow (he won’t), he does have the authority to call in the copyright strikes because he is still the creative owner of those works.

As a case in point, consider that Nintendo has hammered content creators on YouTube for playing Nintendo games or playing music from Nintendo games…I guess they don’t want the free press?

The Legal References on Screenshots as Copyrighted Creations

Here are some good resources to get more into the nitty-gritty of screenshot copyright issues.

At the end of the day if you are using someone else’s screenshot cite the original poster, but feel free to take your own to use for non-commercial purposes and you shouldn’t run into any problems as this has become common practice in the video game industry online.

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