For example, in this question about a scene in the film Metropolis, is it allowed to copy the image from a web site and put it directly in the question? It's my understanding it breaks copyright but I'm not very knowledgeable about how that works.


3 Answers 3


The 100% legal answer is complicated because it dives into the murky jungle of copyright law and the fair use defense, but the answer is "should be OK as long as you don't overdo it."

For a real, legally valid opinion on this question you'd have to ask SE to ask a lawyer, which I am not. However, in layman's terms, what we do with images from movies is probably not going to get anyone in trouble, because it probably falls under the fair use defense. The tricky part about fair use is that it's not very clearly defined: the only sure way to know if something qualifies as fair use is to ask a jury -- at your trial.

But there are some guidelines for what constitutes fair use of a copyrighted work, and Stack Exchange tends to tick off a lot of those boxes:

  • Only use very small, selected excerpts from the original ("as little as necessary")
  • Using "lower quality" versions of the original (for example, use still images instead of a whole video)
  • Not using the excerpts for commercial purposes
  • Using the excerpts for commentary or criticism.

Fair use was basically invented to allow the kind of uses we have for copyrighted material: to allow us to discuss a work, and use examples, in order to critique it, or explain it, or comment on it.

Since what we're doing is probably fair use, chances are any copyright holders that do stumble on our site are not going to waste their very expensive lawyer's time trying to sue Stack Exchange or issue DMCA notices or anything, because those lawyers would explain that they would probably lose.

(As I understand it, SO is fully protected by the DMCA here, because it's user-provided content, so the first we'd know about it is the site getting a takedown notice, which AFAIK has never happened here. I would definitely hope if such a thing occurred the CMs would lets us know to cut it out.)

  • 5
    Perhaps its worth noting in bigger letters that there has never been a takedown on SFF:SE, regardless of the circumstances.
    – Valorum
    Aug 21, 2016 at 12:30
  • 1
    1) When receiving a DMCA notice, SE removes the image or post and notifies the poster via email. 2) A company can issue DMCA notices hoping to intimidate the user into not countering it, even if they would ultimately lose. Though it takes a Nintendo level of dumbness to attack your fans like that. Aug 24, 2016 at 13:31
  • “The 100% legal answer is complicated because it dives into the murky jungle of copyright law and the fair use defense” — and, if it ever emerges from there, you’ve got copyright law in the rest of the world to consider too. Aug 31, 2016 at 11:18

Disclaimers: IANAL (I am not a lawyer), nor do I represent SE in any way (I'm a volunteer moderator on this site and do not speak for the company).

From the Stack Exchange Network Content Policy:

Copyright. Using copyrighted material does not constitute infringement in all cases. In general, however, users should be careful when using copyrighted content without the permission of those who created it. It is our policy to respond to notices of alleged infringement that comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA").

From an answer written by the Director of Community Development for the Stack Exchange Network to a very similar question on another SE site1:

The issue of "safely adding images" falls primarily under the clauses of "Fair Use" of US Copyright law. The concept of fair use permits limited use of copyrighted material for things like teaching, reporting, and criticism. That mean if (for example) you are writing a critical analysis of a book, you are allowed to show the cover of that book to help describe what you are talking about, or to cite a short passage from that book to illustrate a point.

But almost all fair use cases describe a general rule that no more of the copy or trademark work should be used than is necessary for the legitimate purpose. What that means, essentially, is that we should try to work within the bounds of common sense. For the purpose of operating your site (without getting into a bunch of legal hassles), you should concern yourself primarily with editing for valid and relevant content. If a photo or movie clip does not substantially add to the post, it should be removed. If the content is obviously infringing, it should be removed.

Finally, I should note that there are already many many posts on SFF which contain screenshots, gifs, or video clips taken from films, and as far as I know we've never had a DMCA takedown notice yet.

In your specific case, we're only talking about a single image from the film, which is clearly relevant to the topic at hand and substantially improves the question, making it much quicker and easier for people to understand what you're asking about. I doubt that this could possibly be an issue.

TL;DR: it's fine.

1 Hat-tip to @Loong for drawing my attention to this post.

  • We've even had entire films posted (via YouTube). While those sometimes get removed for copyright violation, that's all that happens. No blowback on SE.
    – Valorum
    Aug 21, 2016 at 12:59
  • 1
    @Valorum And in fact that's completely YouTube's problem. From an SE point of view, everything YouTube is fair game because YouTube has its own copyright regulations and enforcements.
    – TARS
    Aug 21, 2016 at 15:04
  • Yup. Youtube vids can always be considered 100% copyright acceptable. Blame them, not us.
    – Valorum
    Aug 21, 2016 at 21:22

Fair use regarding film excerpts for criticism and review purposes is usually interpreted as max. 2 minutes. Studios themselves usually come up with max. 4 min excerpts for press usage.

Some owners dislike stills revealing the ending, which should be fine to use after the movie had its theatrical run already. Common sense.

  • 4
    Evidence, please
    – Valorum
    Aug 22, 2016 at 13:44
  • These facts are from discussions with one of the top Austrian legal media expert and decades of experiences working in the press (radio, print) for film.
    – rurban
    Aug 24, 2016 at 7:11
  • The "Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies" suggests that it's not minutes that counts, but the overall percentage of the film shown; intellectbooks.co.uk/MediaManager/File/Film%20Stills.pdf. Stanford Law, by comparison merely state that the use must be "reasonable and proportionate"; fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/cases/…. Roy Export v. Columbia Broadcasting Sys states that a one minute clip of the "heart" of a film was not fair use, tinyurl.com/zmodehv
    – Valorum
    Aug 24, 2016 at 7:18

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