With, say, a commercial game (Kerbal Space Program in this instance) with user mods, that are themselves GPL3 licenced and have an effect on the visuals of a screenshot (e.g. art assets, images, custom displays), does a screenshot that includes these custom visuals have to automatically be licenced under the GPL?

My specific query is regarding the RasterPropMonitor plugin, which manages and renders real-time HUD screens. In this case, the whole project lists itself as GPL3, so I assume that automatically covers any attached images/textures, which would then undergo transformation/arrangement by the code - and then be visible on a screenshot.

I can reason how the project can be allowed to be GPL3, as it is "Downstream" from the (closed source) base game that it links with (I assume that Unity classes as a 'System Library'), but am troubled by whether everything that touches or relates to the base mod also ends up being GPL3 - e.g. someone who provides a custom screen, is using the GPL3 mod, so that work would also have to be GPL3?

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    I think in most situations a screenshot would be considered fair use, so you don't have to comply with any license that applies to the software. But fair use is complicated, so this is not always guaranteed. Sep 22, 2015 at 2:09
  • Wikimedia Commons describes screenshots as derivative works, and as such covered by the same license as the software (and possibly anything else that is shown). Their article about screenshots has more details: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Screenshots Sep 22, 2015 at 20:07
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    ... if your jurisdiction knows about Fair Use at all. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use#Influence_internationally - one might even regard Fair Use as the special snowflake. Sep 22, 2015 at 20:46
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    @MichaelSchumacher Fair Use is extremely complicated and it's almost impossible to get two judges within the United States to agree on what is/isn't fair use, let alone two countries. However every country has some limitations on copyright where you are allowed to make copies. Since copyright is also usually not an extraditable offence you only need to comply with copyright law of the country you live in. I'm working on an answer that goes into detail. Sep 22, 2015 at 20:54
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    @AbhiBeckert Commons host images that anyone should be able to re-use. Even if Commons use of some work is fair use (and it's really unlikely it would be, but just for the sake of it let's say it is), then re-use might not be. Since the only goal of Commons is to host works that can be freely re-used, a fair-use rationale would be worthless for them.
    – Martijn
    Sep 24, 2015 at 12:52

1 Answer 1


Screenshots might be a derivative work and might need to comply with GPL (or any other open source license).

The factors to determine this are extremely complicated and must be judged individually depending on the screenshot and how the screenshot is being used. They also vary greatly depending what country's laws are being applied.

If in doubt, this is a case where you need to contact a lawyer in your local jurisdiction.

In the United States most screenshots are "fair use" because because they are some kind of commentary or education or archival of the original work and also because when you distribute copies of a screenshot you are not causing any financial harm to the copyright holder.

In some situations, a screenshot can also be a "de minimis" copy, for example if a multi billion dollar movie has a scene where for 6 seconds an actor is using Linux... that would not be fair use but it would be such an insignificant use in the scheme of things that the movie cannot be considered a derivative of the GPL'd work. If, however, the movie was about linux then it would not be de minimis and GPL might apply (although if it was about linux then the copy could be fair use...).

If fair use or de minimis do not apply, then a screenshot is a derivative work and you must comply with the license. Typically the best option is simply to ask for permission to distribute screenshots, but for GPL that is difficult - depending how the project is run you might need permission from every contributor going back hundreds of years.

Fair use and de minimis copying are part of US copyright law however most other countries have something similar. The specific details vary greatly from country to country.

You are usually only required to comply with copyright law in your own country. Again, ask a lawyer.

  • You are referring to de minimis, and not some special law for dwarfs, right? Sep 25, 2015 at 7:47
  • @MichaelSchumacher yes. What do you mean by dwarfs? Do I need to update my answer to include that? Sep 25, 2015 at 19:54
  • You write about "de minimus" (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/minimus) and I did wonder if this was something special. Sep 26, 2015 at 13:49
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    When I say "de minimus", I don't mean the literal meaning of the latin word. I mean "de minimus" as it's used in american copyright law. "courts have dismissed copyright infringement cases on the grounds that the alleged infringer's use of the copyrighted work was so insignificant as to be "de minimis"" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_minimis#Copyright Sep 28, 2015 at 20:35

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