Snapchat, the fast-growing social media network/messaging app, has spawned some controversy over how copyright law is interpreted in the United Kingdom. In a recent Q&A session with members of Parliament, the British government was asked whether it will take steps to prevent Snapchat images from being made public without the image owner’s consent. In his written response dated 24 March 2016, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey, answered that “[u]nder UK copyright law, it would be unlawful for a Snapchat user to copy an image and make it available to the public without the consent of the image owner. The image owner would be able to sue anyone who does this for copyright infringement.”
This statement could be overly simplistic because it might imply that any sharing of Snapchat images is unlawful. Nonetheless, it highlights the potential copyright implications of screenshotting and other image-sharing activities on Snapchat and other social media Networks.
Snapchat users send their friends images and video clips that disappear after a set amount of time. Once a file has been opened, the recipient has a maximum time limit of ten seconds to view its contents. If Snapchat can detect that a screenshot has illicitly been taken, the company will try to inform the sender. But there are ways to circumvent notification.
Sharing Screenshots of Images Is Not Necessarily Copyright Infringement
A suit for copyright infringement requires that the person suing is the copyright owner. In the case of Snapchat sharing, it is important to consider if the file is eligible for copyright protection, and if so, whether any defenses apply – for example, a recipent may be able to rely on implied consent to copy the image. If, for example, a certain photograph is eligible for copyright protection, the person who took the photograph – who pressed the shutter – is the person who owns the copyright in that photo. However, not every photograph is eligible for copyright protection, at least under UK law. The protection is based on the involvement of some kind of artistic value. So, if a protected photo was shared in public (e.g. on the Internet) without the consent of the copyright holder this would indeed amount to copyright infringement. If a Snapchat user were to send images of a sexual nature (comforted by their temporary nature), the potential legal ramifications of screenshotting could be even more serious and could involve criminal prosecution.
The question whether the sender gives implied consent to publish a photograph to other platforms just because she or he shared that image on Snapchat will likely be answered in the negative. As opposed to web pages, for example, a publication on Snapchat does not result in a wide accessibility. After all, the image is only on display for a (very) limited amount of time.
And the Concerns Apply to More Than Snapchat
It goes without saying that these copyright law principles do not only apply to Snapchat but also to images that are (re)shared over other social media networks/messaging apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp.