Snapchat is an image messaging app which was launched in 2011. The app is unique in that users can take a photo or video, add a caption or doodle and send it to a friend. At its core, the app allows a user to view a 'snap', whether it be a video or a picture, for up to ten seconds before it disappears permanently, making the app ephemeral in nature. It was reported by Bloomberg in January 2016 that the app now has seven billion views versus Facebook's eight billion views.
However, the social media app has provoked some debate in respect of copyright infringement in the United Kingdom. As explained above, the pictures and videos sent by users can usually be viewed only once, but many users have found a way to get around this by taking a screenshot of the snap. The British Government was asked whether it was planning on any action to stop users of the app from taking pictures on Snapchat and from being released to the public without the image owner's permission.
In a written response to this question posed to the Government, dated 24 March 2016, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey, said "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."
The minister also said that as well as breaching copyright, anyone who passed on images of a particularly sexual nature without consent could face an additional prison sentence.
Copyright infringement itself is punishable by 10 years in prison and/or an "unlimited" fine though, in the magistrates' courts, this is restricted to six months in prison and a £50,000 fine.
One of the reasons why Snapchat is popular is because it is more private than the likes of other social media platforms for example: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp. Snapchat does not have a sharing tool within its application unlike the above named platforms, therefore users are more likely to share personal things on Snapchat and knowing that selected followers will see this only once for a limited time period. UK law is important in this instance as it reassures users that their messages are safe.
On the other hand, Ed Vaizey's response may be taken to imply that the sharing of any Snapchat images would open the doors to copyright infringement. The response did raise concerns regarding the copyright implications of screenshotting on both Snapchat and other social media applications. Snapchat can however detect if another user has screenshotted an original image before it deletes and app seeks to inform the original poster.
In order to establish copyright infringement, the suing party must be the owner of any copyright in the image sent (it follows that the image itself is eligible for copyright protection) and also none of the defences may apply for example: implied consent, criticism or review. The person who pressed the shutter or took the photo on their smartphone is essentially the owner of the copyright in that photo. If this photo is shared in public without the permission of the original author or copyright holder, then this would amount to infringement.
This article has focussed on the potential implication of copyright infringement using Snapchat. However, the copyright law principles highlighted do also apply to other social networking apps mentioned in respect of re-sharing other people's images.in: Copyright, News