I'm getting into non-fiction technical writing (a blog, but potentially ebook or otherwise). Often the best technical advice come from dissecting and synthesising good and bad examples from the industry.

Basically, I want to take screenshots of a bunch of websites, then discuss why they're good and how they could be better, and come out the other end with a schema for creating a new website base on those lessons. Fairly straightforward.

My question is whether copyright could prevent me from selling such a product if the site owners don't give explicit permission? I could ask a lawyer, but I assume this is a common concern for writers doing research. Is reproduction of third-party content for the purpose of analysis "fair use"?

  • 5
    Read the Wikipedia article on Fair Use: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use In the end this question can only be answered by a court of law on the basis of the finished book. As you know, different courts of law make different decisions in the same cases. Courts of law make decisions that do not logically follow from the letter of the law. And finally, the size of illustration, the accompanying text, and so on, will influence the ruling of the court. So, ask a lawyer. Those are a hundred bucks well spent. I never believe anonymous advice on the internet when it comes to the law.
    – user5645
    Nov 16, 2014 at 10:03
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    To explain my comment above and why you should consult a lawyer: The problem I see with your approach is that no-one will oppose if you feature their design in a showcase of the best webdesign, because they can only profit from that, but most everyone will probably object to serve as an example for bad design and how it could have been done better. That is verging on libel and harming the repuation and business of the designer and website owner. It may be useful to those wanting to learn webdesign, but it is certainly problematic for those whose work you use as examples.
    – user5645
    Nov 17, 2014 at 11:29
  • @what Thank you, that's great advice, even if it's not really what I wanted to hear :). Law is always that way. I could probably avoid including any negative commentary on the screenshots. I was more worried that, for example, if I take a screenshot that represents their brand, they lose the ability to update it. In the future, if they change their design, I could get in trouble out of nowhere. I guess I'll ask around in the law world if no one has a better idea. Thanks!
    – Pie21
    Nov 17, 2014 at 20:27
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    @Pie21 Vincent Flanders has already basically done this with WebPagesThatSuck.com. He started it back in 1996 or possibly earlier. He has written books to go along with it also. It was extremely popular when it originally released. Search Amazon for "web pages that suck" and you'll see it.
    – raddevus
    Nov 17, 2014 at 20:43
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    @Pie21 I do have an idea, but I'm no expert. That is all I'm saying: Be carful whose advice you rely on. Of course there are books that document old and out of date corporate identity. The problem is not that you grab a screenshot, but what you do with it. Science and art can do almost anything (so if you did a study on which designs were most effective in creating buying behavior, you'd not have a problem, if you said one design did not work), but commerce cannot (if you make money on saying which design is bad, that might not be fair use).
    – user5645
    Nov 18, 2014 at 7:58

3 Answers 3


Speaking as a programmer, the solution to your problem is "don't be lazy."

Taking screenshots is easy but risks libeling others: It can include their logo, their product picture, their address and phone number, and they can argue that your criticism is costing them money, reputation and good will.

However, if you are writing something for professionals about web design then I presume you are expert and have experience doing it: So don't be lazy! If you have some rule to lay out, inspired by the site XYZ, just sit down at your keyboard and mock up a similar screen shot with that exact problem.

Note in your website and book that all screenshots are mock-ups inspired by real life; the names and products are changed to protect the innocent (more specifically, yourself). Don't include phone numbers or addresses or logos. If you feel those are important, make the logo some free clip art, make the company name your own in a similar (and free) font: "Amadeus Boats". If they are selling cars, you are selling boats, or trucks, or motorcycles: All free clip art. change the phone numbers to have a prefix of 555 or 000 (never used in real life), change the addresses to a fictional street name in your town with a fictional zip code (Here is a list of 40,934 actual zipcodes, but be aware they may change monthly, and also google your zip to see if it is being used in other fiction; e.g. Veronica Mars uses the fictional zip 90909; which you can see by googling just "90909").

Generalize the problem: If some guy spelt his own name wrong, spell your own name wrong: "Amdeus" instead of "Amadeus".

I presume your point is not to say "Go look at this crap for yourself!", but "Yes, this problem really happens, this is what it looks like and why it sucks, and here is how you could fix it."

Somebody recognizing their own layout in your publication (web or book) is not a problem unless they can prove it would be clear to strangers you are denigrating them. That should not be obvious if you focus on what the design problem is, and don't get involved in how stupid somebody must be to commit such an error.

It doesn't make your advice more compelling to be able to point at the actual moron that did something stupid. You are telling them these arereal problems on real websites. Presumably these problems occur often enough to make it worth learning to avoid them (in which case the error in question should exist on more than one website).

You don't have to worry about lawsuits if the work you display is your own creation.


Even "fair use" doesn't cover the reaction of the owner and won't protect the intent of the user. As my retired attorney father often said, "anyone can sue anybody for anything at any time."

If you will always praise the websites. I.E., "This website is a great example of rule #6..." then screenshots probably can be used under "fair use" and it's unlikely you'll be sued.

However, no one likes hearing their baby is ugly. So if you ever expect to use a site as a negative example you had better get the owner's explicit and written permission first — and you should expect to be told, "no." If you don't, your use must express a factual violation of an industry-established rule. As an example, you can legally cite a factual (i.e., extant public records) crime as a person's bad behavior or in the case of Melissa Rivers explaining why her mother was a bad driver from personal experience, but when you make subjective assesments about someone else or something owned by someone else and don't have (e.g.) a law you can point to that proves it's factually wrong, what you just comitted was libel.

Remember, "anyone can sue anybody for anything at any time."

I was a micro-publisher for a decade, and copyright was (and still is) sacred. Treat others with respect; and if you're lucky, they'll treat you with respect. Treat others with disrespect, anticipate disrespect.

If this doesn't help you answer your question then you need to get a lawyer.


As a rule using excerpts for critical or explanatory purposes is fair use. As long as the excerpts are fragmentary and clearly essential to your criticism you should be on solid ground.

The main thing to avoid would be copying large or complete sections of the web sites or copying things which are irrelevant to your own material.

  • The problem with fair use is that it is 1. possibly not mentioned in the copyright laws of every country you might want to sell your book in and 2. a possible defense in a lawsuit, but not a way to avoid a lawsuit in the first place.
    – Philipp
    Sep 13, 2017 at 14:50

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