Snapchat, the fast-growing social media network/messaging app, has spawned some copyright controversy in the United Kingdom. In a recent Q&A session with members of Parliament, the British government was asked whether it was taking steps to ensure that pictures taken on Snapchat cannot be released to the 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, the statement raised concerns regarding the 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. The maximum time for display is ten seconds. If Snapchat detects that a recipient has taken a screenshot of an image before it is automatically deleted, the app will try to inform the original sender. But there are ways to circumvent notification.

Sharing Screenshots of Images Is Not per se Copyright Infringement

A suit for copyright infringement requires that the person suing is the owner of any copyright that may subsist in the image sent and that none of the (statutory) defenses apply – for example, implied consent, criticism or review. 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. So, ‎if that photo was shared in public without the consent of the copyright holder this would indeed amount to copyright infringement. The potential legal ramifications for sharing messages of a sexual nature might be even more serious and could involve criminal prosecution.

And the Concerns Apply to More Than Snapchat

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.