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Is Putting Screen Captures from Movies on TV Screens in Interior Images a Copyright Violation?

Published: 26/09/2017

Bruce in Connecticut asks:

Recently I shot a home with a couple of movie theaters and the homeowner has asked if I could put clips of Forest Gump on one screen and a clip from Rocky on another. I am reluctant to do so as I don't know the ramifications with regards to copyright. I can't superimpose someone else's creative work onto my images without permission, I would think it would be the same for movies. Unfortunately, I am out of my element when it comes to this as it has never been asked of me before. The homeowner says the previous Realtor's photographer honored this request.

First of all, this is a legal question and none of us here are lawyers so the following is just a compilation of opinions of photographers. Someone who could answer this more conclusively is Joel Rothman at SRIPLaw.

Taking a frame out of a movie and using it for real estate marketing is pretty clearly using someone else's copyrighted work for commercial purposes without permission. So to me, it's a copyright violation! Could someone (another Realtor's photographer) manage to do that and not get caught? Yes, no problem. The chances of getting caught are probably quite small. You could always get the homeowner or Realtor to sign an agreement that they will pay your legal costs if you get caught. That might change their attitude if they are asked to get their skin in the game.

Update 9/26: Garett Buell points out in a comment below that the solution to this problem is trivial! Just use stock photos to put Rocky and Forest Gump on the screens. I check and they have photos of Rocky and Forest Gump to use for this.

Larry Lohrman

15 comments on “Is Putting Screen Captures from Movies on TV Screens in Interior Images a Copyright Violation?”

  1. Why would the seller want to take a chance on offending a prospective buyer in the slightest way (even on a subconscious level)? What if the the buyer despises one or both of those movies or the actors? They don't recommend painting the walls beige for no reason.

  2. I just read a few articles and I think that doing a screen replacement for a home theater type room would fall under fair use. I have seen people use like the MGM lion logo or the Paramount mountain logo. That would be way worse than using a frame from a popular movie. Here is a long article, but has some good info:

  3. i've always thought of this too... to be safe i downloaded some stock photos from adobe stock and get some fresh ones every now and then to be able to mix it up or better match the overall style or scene color etc... just mask them in... saved me a lot of time fiddling with home theater systems as it was always on a screen saver or something when i got up there to shoot and waiting on the owner to pause it on a good looking image was taking too much time so the stock images are great and really easy to edit in... i just use the pen tool in photoshop cc and trace the screen...

  4. @Garett - Using stock photos is an awesome solution! I just looked on and they have stock photos for both Rocky and Forest Gump! Easy solution! Thanks.

  5. Yes, it would be a copyright violation. I doubt that it would cause a problem, but if it did show up on the studio's radar, it might generate a DMCA complaint/takedown to be sent out and that would look bad for the photographer and the agent.

    I don't like having the TV on due to how the saturated color draws too much attention. The same goes for a black screen that reads as a black hole. The Library of Congress has a photostream on Flickr with massive amounts of public domain images. They're in B/W so they don't cause a color distraction and they can be layered in via Screen mode to look very natural. One image I use a lot is a steam train crossing a big trestle bridge. It has a nice look and the subject is tame. Just be careful when browsing the library, it's like binging on YouTube.

  6. A Fair Use argument is tough to win. If a Copyright holder's attorney/legal department sends a letter, they aren't going to accept a claim of fair use and go away. Their attorneys will have already reviewed the instance and decided that there has been an infringement in their eyes. If you have to go to court to defend yourself, and it IS a Federal case, you have already lost. Your attorney's fees will cost you more than the price of a late model used car and the plaintiff will already know that and might have offered to settle for 2/3'rds or so of that amount. "The only winning move is not to play"

    There are better resources on the US Copyright office's web page, and that's a much better place to find out about Fair Use than a blog page. Jack Reznicki and Ed Greenburg have a lecture on YouTube that was filmed at BH Photo that goes a little into fair use and a lot into copyright as it applies to photographers. They also have a web site,, that specializes in Copyright issues. You can send in the question and see if Ed (the copyright attorney) will answer it on the blog.

    Forget Fair Use and use images that are old and in the public domain.

  7. We never use shots from movies for theatre screens, we mostly use some of the exteriors or aerials from the property and replace the screen.

  8. Really doesn't even matter whether the image from the film were added in post, or captured while the movie was playing in the theater room-it is a copyrighted work that can easily be argued that the frames of the film were adding value to the real estate photos that were being used for commercial purposes. The fair use argument would be destroyed by a mediocre lawyer, even easier by the lawyers for the film studio.

    It would never get that far in reality; nobody who has a legal claim to the film would ever see the real estate photos (provided you are shooting in the LA area or one of the places the Hollywood crowd like to vacation) and the home would sell without any legal fess about the photos. At worse there would be a takedown notice that one would have to be a fool not to follow.

    I wouldn't allow such things in my work as I do believe it is stealing and won't allow it in my business. If you do want to indulge the client and provide them with images with unlicenced images as part of the work, I would caution them with the legal ramifications and distance yourself from the work once paid.

  9. Don't even think about using anything from Disney. Their attorneys will be on you like a duck on a junebug. Rob and Ken make very good points about distractions. I take down the screen reflections to a reasonable degree and desaturate strong colors to avoid the black hole. I like the thought of an innocuous stock B&W image (e.g., the train) to showcase a theater room, if that's important to the client. Anytime you use human faces, the eye is drawn to that. Are you selling a house or is this an ad for TVs? What bothers me more in the question is the homeowner's assertion "the other photographer did it" attempt to persuade the photographer to do something that may be unethical. I thought we stopped using that method to argue a point in sixth grade. And such specific images! At least they didn't ask for a photo of the smiling realtor. 😉

  10. If the owner/agent really wants something on the screen, find some screenshots of movies out of copyright, like some of the Jimmy Stewart classics.

  11. What if you take an image of the theater where there is an image projected on the screen? No one is in violation of a copyright in my eyes.

  12. As far as I can determine, it is not a copyright infringement to show works of art in a photo, as long as they are not the subject of the photo. Would not showing a screen with an image projected upon it be the same thing, when the screen is only an element in the photo and not the subject of the photo?

  13. I always chuckle when I see people make sweeping, unilateral statements about what's legal and what's not, when case law overwhelmingly demonstrates otherwise. It's never that black-and-white. Even attorneys will generally concede to the equivocal nature of topics such as the concept of fair use. It's like freedom of speech—where the line is drawn tends to reflect contemporary attitudes, industry and political influences, the skill of the lawyers arguing the case, and the perspective of the individual judge(s) hearing the case.

    A perfect example would be the fact that most architectural photographers routinely photograph homes that feature copyrighted artwork throughout. Paintings, sculptures, other photographs—all of these things are subject to copyright, yet we don't think twice about capturing them in the photos, billing our clients for the creation and use of the photos, and billing the artist should they wish to utilize our work to promote their own.

    The determination of Fair Use is based on a number of factors. As Ken Brown correctly points out above, it can in any case be difficult to prove, particularly when the other side has an entire department of lawyers on retainer, whose sole purpose is to aggressively protect the exclusivity of their intellectual property. Among the factors utilized when considering a fair use defense is the portion of the work that has been utilized in the alleged infringement. One could argue that a single frame from a movie that is comprised of many thousands of frames, with no audio utilized in the process, is a minuscule portion of the work. It could also be argued that the placement of that frame in a typical environment in which the movie would be watched (a TV screen or home theater) would be transformative in nature as commentary. If the image happened to be actually displayed on the screen at the time the photo was taken, how is this any different from a painting or sculpture that comprises only part of the entire photo?

    Personally, I adopt the stance that while a single frame from a movie should be regarded by a reasonable person as "fair use," as someone viewing the photo would not really get the benefit of having watched the movie from that single frame (and might even be induced to rent or buy it later), it's not a risk that's really worth taking. It's best to err on the side of caution and utilize the wealth of public domain stills available, or even better, just throw a gradient on it which IMHO is far less distracting anyway, unless it's a gigantic home theater screen.

  14. Here's a question for you. Does art and furniture occupying a room constitute copyright infringement? After all, Those products may have signature aesthetics which can are iconic brands or artists. IE, a hanging print of a Peter Lik on the wall.

    In regards to the image on a television screen. One could simply play a DVD and capture an image. Although I'm not practiced in law, I see an image as incidental to the normal ambience of a living-space. Perhaps it can even be justified as journalistic/ or documenting a time/period of "said space" thereby by allowing fair use. After all, real estate photography is a form of documentation. It's just incidental that aesthetics are an element of the image creation process. Furthermore, the frame of the single image is a minuscule fraction of the entirety of the work. It could be considered transformative to the extent which neither helps nor hinders the originator of said work. Lastly, I would ask, could it be replaced with any other type of image with little to no change in conceptual impact.

    Just my two cents.

  15. Here you go. This should suffice.

    3. Capturing copyrighted media content in the process of filming something else
    A poster in someone’s room, a song on the radio, TV in the background— these are copyrighted works we can hardly avoid filming when capturing a story, not to mention that they may be integral details to the character or story itself.
    In The Wolfpack documentary, seven homeschooled brothers, confined to their apartment for 14 years, learned about the world by watching movies (and then reenacting them). The film is naturally full of copyrighted films, but this is crucial to the story and protected under fair use.
    Make sure you haven't violated these five specific limitations according to the Statement:
    • Particular media content played or displayed in a scene being filmed was not requested or directed;
    • Incidentally captured media content included in the final version of the film is integral to the scene/action;
    • The content is properly attributed;
    • The scene has not been included primarily to exploit the incidentally captured content in its own right, and the captured content does not constitute the scene’s primary focus of interest;
    • In the case of music, the content does not function as a substitute for a synch track (as it might, for example, if the sequence containing the captured music were cut on its beat, or if the music were used after the filmmaker has cut away to another sequence).
    4. Using copyrighted material in a historical sequence
    If you’re trying to tell a historical story or make a point about history, you will likely need to use words, images, and music that are associated with the times.

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