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Pinterest: Is It A Facebook Or A Grokster?

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Copyright clouds are gathering around Pinterest. And that could make the dreamy image site an unlikely successor to other innovators — from Grokster to the Beastie Boys — who walked a fine legal line between sharing and theft.

In recent months, Pinterest’s soaring popularity has led media outlets to dub it the “next Facebook.” The site, which already has millions of users, has also won a 2011 start-up of the year award and significant venture capital. (To see who is using Pinterest, see this excellent account by my colleague Laura Owen).

Unfortunately for Pinterest, all the hype has also brought attention from another quarter: angry copyright owners. On sites like iStock, photographers are complaining that their pretty pictures are being used without permission in users’ collages. And to judge by Pinterest’s voicemail, the photographers are not the only ones upset. When I called the number listed for copyright complaints, a recording said the mailbox was full.

Pinterest said by email that it doesn’t disclose how many copyright complaints it receives. The company added that it actively responds to notices sent by email, and that it’s “building more tools to make it easier for rights holders to file a report.”

In the bigger picture, the copyright questions echo disputes from an earlier era that pit legal rules against new forms of culture. These include a long-running lawsuit over a short flute sample in the Beastie Boys hit ‘Pass the Mic’ (the Beasties won) and a 2005 Supreme Court decision that shut down music-sharing site Grokster.

For Pinterest, the legal issues are not cut and dry. On one hand, its notification scheme should grant it a “safe harbor” under copyright law. It is this law that protects sites like Facebook or YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) from being sued when a user uploads copyrighted material.

But on the other hand, Pinterest’s business is based almost entirely on using images without permission — something that could lead it to lose its safe harbor protection in the same way that Grokster did.

This does not mean, of course, that someone will sue. A spokesperson for Getty Images, which licenses a wide variety of pictures, informed me that the company is “aware of the issue and [is] discussing it with Pinterest.”

Copyright holders may also fear a public relations fallout that would come with a lawsuit. For content owners, it’s one thing to label hip-hop artists and music fans as “thieves.” But it’s quite another when the content involves food and dress pictures — even the most hardened copyright visigoth would pause at denouncing a 16-year-old who borrows pictures to make a collage of her future wedding.

As for Pinterest, the copyright issues present not just a legal problem but a business one as well. Even if the company can implement a YouTube-like takedown system, users will balk if their pretty image boards become spotted with copyright removal notices. Collages are not much fun with pieces ripped out.

The ultimate solution is likely to be a licensing scheme in which image owners will let Pinterest users post pictures in return for sponsored pics or a royalty payment. The good news is that cash is already rolling in at Pinterest. LL Social reported on Tuesday that the company is quietly collecting commission fees by skimming the affiliate links that give third parties a cut of online sales. Spreading some of that money around will make Pinterest popular with copyright owners in no time.

24 Responses to “Pinterest: Is It A Facebook Or A Grokster?”

  1. chuckpjones

    For the second time today, all I have to say is when content providers are paid nothing for their work, their work soon becomes exactly what they are paid – worthless!

  2. Perhaps paying out royalties is the way to go. Pinterest should be great exposure for photographers but there is definitely a gray area of “fair use.” In the end, money talks and if that’s what it takes for Pinterest to continue growing then so be it. 

  3. Jeff Roberts

    Thanks, everyone, for the intelligent and probing comments. These forums can degenerate into shouting matches so it was terrific to see such a high level of discussions that helps to push the debate forward. 

  4. I haven’t tried Pinterest yet. But, recently, I read a post about Pinterest. I found Pinterest interesting and something new to try. However, we should not just go by the looks. Probably most users are doing that, which might have added to its huge popularity within such a short period of time. Now I know that there are certain issues that Pinterest needs to sort out to be the next Facebook. Firstly, it has to make a niche of its own when other giants like Facebook, Twitter, and StumbleUpon are ruling the roost. Thanks Jeff for this informative post.

  5. Dawnbilyeu

    This reminds me of the Google vs. Perfect 10 lawsuit where it was decided that as long as the image on Google was a thumbnail and as long as the image linked back and the option to opt out was offered to copyright users, image caching was ruled legal. Pinterest does need to work on an opt out option and try to link back to the original source, but other than that, I don’t see that they are much different than google image search. Many image found on google do not link back to the rights holder either.

    • It’s not the same at all as Google search.  A: it isn’t a thumbnail, B: the full size image isn’t hosted on Google servers, C: Google search is not an entertainment or social networking site, D: Google does not have commenting on each image, etc.

      • Valid points about the images not being thumbnails and hosted by Pinterest, but what is the significance of this being a social networking site with enabled comments? That sharing is higher and there is a higher likelihood of further copyright infringement?

  6. The real issues is that most copyright law was written during periods when reproduction and distribution technologies were fairly primitive, and relatively expensive, so the act of “violating” copyright was almost always with intent to misuse the copyright materials.  This just illustratess how complicated legal restrictions are difficult to apply in the online world.  The “average” person finds it so easy to use “materials” and the “artists” as they are referred to above might need to rethink their own model for trying to generate income or financial reward from their work.  Before recordings were available, for example, singers could only get paid for live performance.  Maybe they need to go back to that, and if they do make digitable reproducible works, those are released with the clear understanding that there is limited copyright protection available.  We’re putting too much effort and money into the hands of attorneys trying to figure out a way for “materials” to be distributed and sold for profit online.  Just because you want to make money online doesn’t mean you have an absolute right to be able to do so if the technology won’t allow it.  There should be some significant legal reform that addresses this rather than putting bandaids on old copyright law trying to make it “fit” the online world. 

  7. You’re missing the fact that every “pin” is also a live link back into the image owner’s site.  There’s currency in that, if the owner is smart.  The “end game” isn’t just the fact that someone pinned your image on their Pinterest page, it’s the fact that if lots of people like the pinned image, or keep repinning it, the owner suddenly has large numbers of links pointing to their image (free advertising).  Those are all potential new customers that never would have known about the image without Pinterest — and could click through to your site.  Plus, based on how SEO works, more links to your image means more visibility, higher placement on Google searches, and if the owner is smart…. more revenue for the image owner.  Instead of suing Pinterest or Pinterest members, they should be thanking them.

    • Your opinion that “they should be thanking them” is irrelevant.  It is up to the copyrighted works’ creator to decide where and when their art is used and to what extent.  Just because you may think it is the most wonderful thing does not make it a: legal, or b: the correct workflow for everyone.

    • QuentinUK

      There is advertising but there is never a need for an image user to pay to use an image. So advertising will just lead to more people using your images for free. If Pinterest are allowed to do this then what is to stop all other websites doing it as well? No one will have to pay to use images at all.
      I have checked the Pinterest website and looked at the code behind it, they use the nofollow keyword which means Google will not use the link in it’s page ranking.

    • … but that assumes the original poster of the content which has been pinned is the actual copyright holder.  That is not always the case, especially since a lot of images seem to be coming from Tumblr (often famous images without attribution).  So there isn’t necessarily a way of generating revenue or traffic for the actual owner.   What you would need to do is a have a new type of image file embedded with some form of DRM code/a tag that tracks back to the ultimate source (I have no idea if such a thing exists) and then only allow those type of files on the site (to preclude scans etc.).

  8. Ronan Higgins

    Indeed, Pinterest will bring a lot of attention to Google Images, where the images are not being copied by users, but by Google.

    Under Irish copyright law it is illegal to copy or even thumbnail an image without the copyright owner’s consent.  There is no “fair use” under Irish or UK law.

  9. Its just a picture, people are not trying to re sell it or anything. They are just using them to display what they like. If anything the artists should be happy that people are spreading their work across the Internet. I know this is similar to what is happening in the music industry and it is piracy, but would most of these pictures being used have been sold to people? Unlikely. Also, what about all the images on Google images that you can get hold of? What are they doing about that?

    It seems that most people put a strike through or watermark of some sort in their picture to prevent it being copied. If you want to sell your pictures, then just do this and sell a premium, clean version of it?

    • There are PLENTY of ways people make money with their artwork and photos on the web, and pinning a photo competes with most of them. Photographers and artists license them as stock photos, sell them on print-on-demand sites, or use them to get web traffic to their websites where they sell their work or earn money through ads. Even if they weren’t trying to earn a living with their art/photography, “Oh, you weren’t making money on that, were you?” isn’t a legal excuse for violating copyright. 

      Meanwhile, Pinterest and many Pinterest members are already making money off “pinned” images without the knowledge or permission of the copyright holders. For these and additional problems NOT raised by the excellent article above, see:

      • Debbie Flanigan

        Thanks so much for your comment and excellent article in hubpages! I would like to know as a professional photographer, with Pinterest’s current ToS, how exactly (or even if) I could get on this new marketing bandwagon, but still retain all rights to my work. I know of the use of the ’embed’ button and how images are being used without compensation on monetized blogs, websites, storefronts, etc. I also know that it, more often than not, takes more than the often printed ‘1 or 2’ clicks to actually get to the site of the image owner to possibly make a purchase.  I would love to read an article (that you might write) about how photographer’s (speaking of wildlife and nature) could also safely enjoy success on Pinterest, as do the product manufacturer’s. For them, it’s easy as the user has to go to that store, or order the item online to receive their product (after they’ve made the purchase), but our images ARE our product. Once pinned, they have our product to use as they choose. Or is it a site you’d recommend to totally stay away from right now? Currently I am blocking my website’s images from pinning. I keep reading about all the page views and traffic being driven to sites by Pinterest, but n  one is mentioning ‘dollars spent’. Web / social marketing is so time consuming now, that I would like to know if the new site is generating real sales.
        You are a bright light of sanity in all of the Pinterest hype. Thanks for guarding our copyrights! We’re listening to you!

    • Again, the point is not whether “artists should be happy” (that is your opinion) or whether or not people want to sell the images they create.  The point is that Pinterest is a site built on encouraging its users to infringe on the rights of artists (in the majority of “pins”) by using its member to basically create an stolen image database on Pinterest’s servers, which it then provides for entertainment and commercial use to viewers.