Is it considered fair use to have screenshots, or character likenesses, in a book as a descriptor or reference?

For example, when describing time-travelers, can I use a few screenshots from Doctor Who? Or, when describing a vampire, can I used Bela Lugosi or some other actor in character?

I know that law varies from country to country (I'm in Brazil BTW), but I couldn't find anything regarding this for my country, so answers regarding US or UK law (since they are the copyright owner on those examples) would suffice.

  • I don't know what you mean by screenshot. This term, to me, means a copy of what is on your computer screen. I can't quite work out exactly what you want to do. Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 20:20
  • By screenshot I mean a video frame (or screengrab) from a movie or TV series. That image would them be referenced in the text as a descriptor. Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 20:48
  • I could be wrong, but as far as I know you can't use screenshots for commercial purposes without permission in the UK. The law about Fair Use applies to research and education. Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 21:18

3 Answers 3


This answer is tangential because it is about U.S. law and not Brazilian law, but maybe it will be helpful.

You can get an exhaustive list of court cases on U.S. "fair use" law here: http://copyright.gov/fair-use/fair-index.html

I browsed through them trying to find something directly relevant, but I was rather surprised to find that I couldn't find quite the case you're talking about. Maybe this is considered so obviously settled law that it hasn't come to court.

In general, criteria for qualifying for "fair use" are:

  1. Did your copying hurt the market for the original work? That is, is your copying such that people are likely to buy your copy rather than the original? (Remember, copyright is all about PROPERTY rights, your right to make money from your property. People often have the mistaken idea that it is about protecting your reputation as the author of the work and that sort of thing. No.)

  2. How much of the work was copied? If you copy one sentence from a 300-page novel, you're on much firmer footing than if you copy 299 pages.

  3. Was the use "transformative"? That is, did you just copy what somebody else did, or have you "transformed" it in some way, such as using it for a purpose different from the original purpose, modifying it, parodying it, criticizing it, etc?

  4. Was the use for purpose of education, research, or criticism? Quoting someone else as part of a literary review or a movie review is given wider latitude than simply incorporating someone else's work into your own.

I am not a lawyer, but I'd think that including a screen grab as part of a review would be about as safe as it gets on a fair use defense. The cases I read through included several where someone made a documentary about the history of film and included scenes from movies that they wanted to comment on, and these were consistently ruled fair use. Another was someone using footage of a boxing match in a biography about the boxer, again ruled fair use.


In The US this would be obvious fair use (even for commercial use), but this does not matter as you are in Brazil. There is a long history in international law that the copyright law of where you are not the copyright law that the original was produced under applies. Fair Use and Fair Dealing do not apply everywhere, and if I remember correctly Brazil has no equivalent (I could be wrong, I know for sure several South American countries were on the list, and I think Brazil was one, but I don't remember).

  • The law in Brazil is very outdated and don't mention audiovisual resources. The most relevant sections says something like: "You many use quotes from protected works in commentaries, critics, etc". I don't know if I can consider a screenshot a "quote" from a movie, I think it makes sense. I asked about international law, because the copyrights owners are from US and UK, they will probably base their judgement on their law. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 19:34

Is it considered fair use to have screenshots, or character likenesses, in a book as a descriptor or reference?

If you discuss time travel in popular media in the context of education or an essay, and use an image of Doctor Who as an example of a time travel TV character, that is fair use.

If you have a fictional character who is a time traveler, and you would like your readers to get the idea that this character is a lot like Doctor Who, this is not fair use.

If you are writing something like a role playing manual, and you have a category of time travelers or vampires and want to use some famous media stars as illustrations, this is not fair use.

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