No, taking a Snapchat screenshot will probably not land you in jail

Andres Guadamuz

We tackle the big issues here in Technollama. Do monkeys and cats own copyright? Will the UK government ban Whatsapp? Can you copyright a tweet? Can you knit a Dalek?

The latest copyright controversy has arisen in the UK as a result of a written question posed to the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey by DUP MP Jim Shannon. The question was whether the government was taking steps to ensure that pictures taken on Snapchat cannot be released to the public without the image owner’s consent, a question that seems to be directed mostly at instances of revenge porn. Mr Vaizey answered the following:

“Under 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.

Snapchat photos are automatically deleted after 10 seconds. The Snapchat Privacy Policy states that if Snapchat is able to detect that a recipient has taken a screenshot of an image, they will try to inform the original poster. However, Snapchat advises users to avoid sending messages which they would not want to be saved or shared.

The disclosure of private sexual photographs or films without the consent of an individual who appears in them and with intent to cause that individual distress, is an offence under Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. Those convicted could face a maximum sentence of two years in prison.”

The press saw a possible clickbait controversy, and they ran with it. TeenVogue wrote that “Sharing screenshots it’s illegal in the UK” and claims that the “U.K. government is coming down hard on Snapchat”. The Independent said that “Copyright infringement itself is punishable by 10 years in prison”. While The Mirror said that it could land you two years in prison. Interestingly, some of the most measured articles came from The Sun and Buzzfeed.

So is the media frenzy justified? Is the UK government “coming down hard on Snapchat”? Mr Vaizey’s statement is entirely accurate when it comes down to the law. The confusion, and the source of much of the sensationalist coverage, is that there are two different legal issues in the answer: one is copyright, the other one is about revenge porn.

With regards to copyright, taking an unauthorised screenshot would be strictly speaking an act of copyright infringement, and the author of that picture could indeed sue for copyright infringement in a civil court for damages and to get an injunction, no jail time involved. This is not unique to the UK, it would probably be true in most countries. It is extremely unlikely that a copyright infringement of this nature would result in a criminal prosecution, the threshold for copyright infringement to be dealt as a criminal offence is very high, it has to be done for sale or hire, in the course of business, and at a commercial scale.

The second part of Mr Vaizey’s answer is also accurate, but it has nothing to do with copyright. Last year the UK Parliament criminalised revenge porn in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. s33 says that “disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress” and it is done “without the consent of an individual who appears in the photograph or film”, then the act will result in two years prison sentence or fine upon conviction. This again is not unique to Snapchat, it applies to all manner of unauthorised disclosure of such images. And if you’re using Snapchat, Whatsapp, Facebook or any social media to distribute private sexual photographs without permission, you’re indeed breaking the law and may end up in jail. But if you are taking a snapshot of a picture then you may very well be infringing copyright, but such an action is very unlikely to make it to court, the owner of the picture is very unlikely to sue you. As with everything, it all depends on what you are doing with the image.

Thankfully this story does not really affect me, you are as likely to find me using Snapchat as you are of finding me queuing for the next film by Michael Bay.

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