Here’s why you can’t screenshot a TV show or movie on your computer

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If you try to take a screenshot on Netflix, Disney+, or any of the major streaming services, you’ll inevitably get a blank, black screen. Automatically blocking screenshots is a point of frustration and confusion for many viewers, not least because it seems counterintuitive. When fans post screencaps on social media, they create free publicity for the source material. So why are streaming services so keen to stop them?

Well, despite what many subscribers believe, it’s not the streaming services that are stopping you from taking screenshots. It’s your web browser.

In response to an email from the Daily Dot, Netflix confirmed that this was not an internal decision: “Screenshot blocking is done at the browser level and is not something we can stop or control.”

Unfortunately, this is not widespread. When certain browsers tightened their digital rights management (DRM) strategies in April 2022, many Netflix subscribers were quick to call Netflix themselves, accusing the platform of suddenly blocking their ability to take screenshots.

When you see people posting screenshots from Amazon, Disney+, Hulu, etc., they’re almost certainly bypassing their browser’s DRM security to do so. It’s more complicated than just clicking the screenshot button, but there are many explanations on how to do it, usually through the use of third-party extensions. And judging by the vast array of Netflix screenshots and GIFs floating around on social media, both browsers and streaming services tend to turn a blind eye to this particular issue.

For example, if you post a covert screenshot from an unreleased Marvel movie, the copyright owner (Disney) may request that that content be removed. But the Disney+ streaming service doesn’t penalize people for posting GIFs of things that are already on the platform, and neither does your browser. The browser, as part of its automated DRM technology, is just trying to stop you from making these GIFs in the first place.

What is DRM?

DRM is relevant to a variety of media from video games to e-books and has been controversial for years. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights nonprofit, has criticized DRM for giving companies too much control over media — for example, Amazon being able to remotely delete a book from your Kindle .

Writing for the EFF in 2017, digital rights advocate Cory Doctorow emphasized the difference between old-school copyright law and the more aggressive power of DRM. First of all, “The reason companies want DRM has nothing to do with copyright law.” That’s because “DRM law gives rightsholders stronger and broader legal powers than laws governing any other type of technology. “

“It’s not copyright infringement to watch Netflix in a browser that Netflix hasn’t approved,” Doctorow said. “It’s not copyright infringement to record a Netflix movie to watch later. It is not copyright infringement to submit a Netflix video to an algorithm that can warn you of impending lightning bolts that can trigger life-threatening seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy.”

In other words, following the old-fashioned rules of copyright law, there’s no essential difference between recording a show on Netflix and recording the same thing on TV. But DRM law and technology are much more aggressive.

So while the internet theoretically gives us easier access to media, it also gives media conglomerates and tech companies more control over what we consume – and how. Along with automated DMCA takedown notices, screenshot blockers are a prime example.

If you download a DRM-free video file, you can edit or screenshot it to your heart’s content. But if you’re watching something on Disney+, the situation is very different. Some streaming services allow you to temporarily store a movie on your device, but their DRM prevents you from watching or editing it on a third-party media player. And of course, browsers like Safari, Chrome, and Firefox have extensive digital rights management strategies that limit your access even further.

So yes, it’s frustrating that we can’t just casually take screenshots on our phones, but it’s not about streaming services penalizing screenshots as copyright infringement. It’s an accidental symptom of a more complicated digital rights conflict.

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*Initial publication: December 22, 2022 at 3:00 p.m. CST

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in science fiction films and superheroes, she also appears as a film and television critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she is the co-host of the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw Here’s why you can’t screenshot a TV show or movie on your computer

Jaclyn Diaz

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