In which she agonizes over Pinterest

by DaniGirl on February 27, 2012 · 28 comments

in How I love the Interwebs, Photography

I am seriously addicted to Pinterest. I am a natural hoarder, and so I love collecting things that take up no physical space. I love pinning photographic inspiration, crafty ideas, recipes and inspiration for future home renovations and decoration. I found the Star Wars family stickers that so delight me via Pinterest. I’ve got an amazing collection of Photoshop tutorials and ideas to furnish the photography studio I’d like to build in the garage. I truly love surfing and collecting pins on Pinterest.

And yet, as a photographer, I feel conflicted about Pinterest. I had mixed feelings when I saw Lucas’s “puddle jumper” popping up on the site (and the worst part was that the attribution, when it appeared, was usually back to the I Heart Faces site where I’d entered it in one of their competitions before I started licensing it through Getty.) Some photographers are happy to share their work on Pinterest, some are probably ambivalent like me, and some consider it an egregious copyright infringement. I’m happy that people like my pictures, and I share them because I love showing them to you — but when they wander away and become separated from me, from my little “property” here and on Flickr and Facebook, that makes me increasingly anxious.

As Pinterest has started to set the Internet on fire (it’s now getting more than one billion monthly page views, with 10 million registered users) there have been more articles written about how ethical the business model could be that encourages people to share without explicit (or any) permission. Responding to the backlash, Pinterest recently offered a bit of code that website owners can put on their sites to prevent pinning, and Flickr just announced that it has disabled the ability to pin Flickr images for which the user has not explicitly enabled sharing.

What really got me wondering about whether I want to continue to participate as a pinner, though, was this article and a few similar opinions I’ve read about copyright infringement. The author of the blog post (long, but definitely worth reading), who is a lawyer and was inspired to look into the legal aspect of Pinterest’s Terms of Service from a copyright perspective, said:

From a legal perspective, my concern was for my own potential liability. From an artist’s perspective, my concern was that I was arguably engaging in activity that is morally, ethically and professionally wrong. […] Even in light of all of the above, what finally sealed the deal for me as I tried desperately to talk myself out of deleting my gorgeous inspiration boards, was when I thought of some of the photographers whose work I had pinned from other websites. Would they want me posting their images? My initial response is probably the same as most of yours: “why not? I’m giving them credit and it’s only creating more exposure for them and I LOVE when people pin my stuff!” But then I realized, I was unilaterally making the decision FOR that other photographer. And I thought back to the thread on Facebook where the photographers were complaining about clients posting photos without their consent and I realized this rationale is no different than what those clients argue: “why can’t I post them – it’s just more exposure for you.” Bottom line is that it is not my decision to make. Not legally and not ethically.

Aside from the ethical question, the author of the blog post also opines that you as a pinner could be held legally liable for any damages arising from copyright infringement:

[I]f some photographer out there decides that he or she does not want you using that photogs images as “inspiration” or otherwise and decides to sue you and Pinterest over your use of that photog’s images, you will have to hire a lawyer for yourself and YOU will have to hire a lawyer for Pinterest and fund the costs of defending both of you in court. Not only that, but if a court finds that you have, in fact, violated copyright laws, you will pay all damages assessed against you and all damages assessed against Pinterest. OUCH. Oh, but it gets better. Pinterest reserves the right to prosecute you for violations. Basically, Pinterest has its keester covered and have shifted all of the risk to you. Smart of them, actually since the courts are still deciding whether the site owner or the user should be ultimately responsible. Rather than wait for the decision, they have contractually made you the responsible one. And you agreed.

Now I’m no lawyer, but the argument against copyright infringement speaks to me. After seven years of chasing down blog scrapers, and almost as long keeping a watchful eye out for unwarranted use of my photographs, the idea of participating in – of gleefully perpetuating — that kind of infringement is somewhere between distasteful and downright disgusting.

It’s true that some site owners clearly encourage sharing by the use of a “pin this” button, and I’ve seen other arguments that *any* kind of social share button pretty much obliviates the copyright argument (which kind of gives me pause, as that’s certainly not my intention on my own site here – but my poor brain can only handle so many of these arguments at a time!) But do I have the patience to pop over to the originating site of each pin to see if the original creator has indicated that the material is available for sharing? I’m not sure. And you can only click back to the source material about half the time.

I’ve paused my obsessive pinning until I can get this sorted out for my own conscience, if nothing else. I’m flattered when people like my work, in words or in pictures, enough to share. And I love Pinterest as a way to share and collect interesting bookmarks on the Web. But do I have the right to pin someone’s work who feels like I’m violating their copyright in doing so? Doesn’t that put me on the same level as people who think that just because something is posted online it makes it fair game to take and use without permission? A few times I’ve wanted to blog things I’ve found on Pinterest but hesitated for exactly these copyright questions – just because I found it on Pinterest doesn’t mean I can use the images there freely. It is a colossally slippery slope. (Edited to add: And here’s yet another concern, this one finding in the Terms of Use that Pinterest claims the right to SELL any content uploaded to it!!!)

My friend Sue, the erstwhile Mad Hatter Mommy, tweeted a list of ten reasons she’s not a Pinterest fan last night, and I found myself laughing and nodding appreciatively at her criticisms, including: 1. Home decor is not all white, light, airy and devoid of brown. and 3. Life cannot be lived according to aphorism no matter how many aphorisms one collects. and 5. Pinterest lets people feel entitled about web use–like taking home all the shells from the beach. and 9. Don’t even get me started on the appropriation & deprofessionalization of the word “curate.” Clearly, Sue has been perusing my pinboards! 😉

What do you think? Are you a Pinterest fan? Does this make you think twice about using Pinterest?


{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kerry February 27, 2012 at 8:34 am

Isn’t pinterest really just a visual form of social bookmarking? Did you feel this way about delicios? (or however you spelled it?)

2 Sara in Montréal February 27, 2012 at 8:40 am

You totally have me thiniking about it. And it adds up to the time this thing can suck out of my life. I just wish I could have somewhere I could save images I like, even if not for sharing, but online and not on my hard disk. Because I use it a lot for inspiration on different projects – and on different platform.

3 DaniGirl February 27, 2012 at 8:55 am

Kerry, although I use Pinterest in the same way, the big difference is that with Pinterest you actually upload the image from a website to Pinterest when you pin it. Delicious, like Twitter, simply links back to the site, but with Pinterest (and Tumblr and WeHeartIt and many others) you physically take something from the site and post it somewhere else. That’s the distinction that makes me twitchy.

Sara, yeah. I will have to go back to using links pointing back to inspiring images and ideas, I think. Sigh.

4 amanda February 27, 2012 at 9:10 am

there’s yet to be a lawsuit though, no? interesting to see how this will pan out.

I think the site is a great idea, though I’ve yet to get sucked into it. But I can see how it would turn into a copyright gongshow. *You* can pin with the best of intentions (only uploading your own work, pinning with credit and link to original) but sources will get corrupted/lost the more people share it… it’s inevitable.

I read the article you quoted from and I didn’t agree with her interpretation of the TOU that you would have to defend pinterest in court, just that you yourself could be liable (“just”, haha). but… she’s a lawyer and I’m not 🙂

have you tried evernote for tracking inspiration, etc? they might have similar issues though.

5 Sue February 27, 2012 at 9:42 am

Hi Dani,
Thanks for sharing some of my misgivings about Pinterest. If I were more of a visual person when it comes to organizing things, I am sure I would be in a similar bind as you. As it is, I can take Pinterest or leave it.

I guess what I find most alarming about Pinterest (and most of the other issues I have with it derive from this one big misgiving) is that it acts as a meta-Internet. If, as Bon said on Twiiter the other day, Pinterest etiquette is to pin/repin other people’s work rather than garishly showcasing your own, then the whole point of Pinterest is to create a selective mini-Internet that establishes prominence based on popularity and the recycling of other people’s ideas. (It calls this curating and I call bullshit.) It’s not enough that pins link back to their originating sites (which doesn’t always happen), b/c according to this model Pinterest is becoming a be-all and end-all in and of itself. One no longer goes to the big, old internet to look for inspiration; one goes to Pinterest instead–which not only is simply a subset of the internet, it is a subset of only certain visual components of the Internet that people may or may not have commented on. To create an analogy, it’s like going to the Library of Congress but then only searching for some of the pictures in some of the books they’ve got there AND doing so according to what previous readers have written in the margins beside those pictures.

To use library science terminology, Pinterest engages in “relevance” over “recall”–i.e. very specific search results that may be missing everything you absolutely need vs too many search hits where what you really want gets lost. This is a useful principal to engage in and it certainly has its place, but who is determining “relevance” on Pinterest? Popularity does not equal relevance. People keep telling me that if I find the right boards to follow, then I will find great wonders. That may well be true, but until I see experts on a given subject matter engaging w/ Pinterest in equal numbers to people who create aphorisms that are riddled w/ spelling/grammatical mistakes, I will remain a skeptic.

See? See what happens when you take me away from a 140 character limit? I blather on and on and on.

6 Sue February 27, 2012 at 9:47 am

That comment really made me sound class-ist, which (I hope) I am not. It’s just that Pinterest established the rules of engagement the second it appropriated the word “curate.”

7 Coffee with Julie February 27, 2012 at 10:30 am

Huh, I had honestly never even thought about Pinterest this way. I’ve just been merrily pinning away, without thought for the artist!

8 Valerie February 27, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I use Pinterest like internet bookmarks/favourites with pictures. I don’t pin pictures just because they’re pretty, but rather ideas that I want to follow up on later, for quick access. I WANT the original source (for instructions, usually) and try to pin from there. Maybe, because my pin boards are there for everyone to see, it’s a problem, but for me it’s not much different than if I had a huge favourites list in IE. If people didn’t want their ideas out there, they surely wouldn’t have posted them?

For artists, however, I can understand where you’re coming from. And it would be better if there was truly a way to guarantee source linking.

p.s. Sue, I miss reading the Mad Hatter blog!

9 Karen February 27, 2012 at 1:13 pm

I think this is an extremely good conversation. Pinterest is a gorgeous site because of the way that it pulls images, but it inadvertantly causes this wee little problem. The points you and Kirsten have raised in your respective pieces are valid and important to be considered. I think there are solutions. For one, Kirsten makes some good suggestions for how they can change their TOS, so hopefully Pinterest will call her. 🙂

For another, there is (like Flickr did) the option of any content owner to block sharing on Pinterest through code, as was pretty widely reported last week. This forces them to be proactive, but it’s a stop-gap measure for those who really don’t want their content shared.

LOTS more education needs to happen for users to use the site with proper credit. That problem is rampant. Pinterest doesn’t help enough with that in my opinion. The form for submitting pins should have more help for users on how to properly give credit, as well as warnings about permalinks versus main web sites. I could go on and on about proper use.

I personally don’t want Pinterest to go away, but I know these issues need to be resolved. I want there to be a happy medium found that protects content, but still allows the powerful sharing/bookmarking tool that Pinterest has become. One idea that came to me from Kirsten’s article was that users should have thumbnail content they don’t own (or force a thumbnail through site code) so that the full image isn’t uploaded. This can help protect copyright owners from infringement, not to mention reduce their server load.

I would hate to see this turn into a lawsuit situation. I doubt that the majority of Pinterest users are trying to steal. The comparison to Napster, though relevant, is very disturbing. I can see a Metallica-esque backlash for content owners who decide to sue people who share their content and that would not be good for web sharing in general.

10 Leanne February 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm

I’ve had work scraped before, so I understand that frustration. But, I don’t see Pinterest as being in a similar league as blog scrapers at all. As long as the linkback is there, I feel like the law will end up coming down on the side of Pinterest in individual cases.

If an intellectual property holder grants access to their works and wants to retain total control over those works, it’s their responsibility to secure those images (or videos). There are apps and code that can do that for you.

I think it has to be this way since the ability to share intellectual property is in the DNA of the internet and that very feature of the internet is exploited by intellectual property holders for marketing and profit purposes. And, further, it’s the intellectual property holder’s choice to provide or restrict access. In the case of the internet, they have to accept that it may not be the appropriate venue for their work. In an example (that’s not perfect mind you), you may decide that leaving a canvas leaning against the side of a building is not an appropriate way to display your art as it’s not a secure place to do so since one of your concerns about your art may be that you want to be able to go and retrieve it at any time. I believe the internet is a little like that. You could choose instead to show your work in a gallery trading off the lack of exposure for security. Or you could keep your art on the street corner and hire a security guard to stand beside it and enforce your rights to the work on your behalf. I see the issue being that intellectual property owners who dislike Pinterest are going to have to learn to be more savvy about how they allow access to their work.

Ultimately, copyright laws are a balance between the rights of the intellectual property owner and the right to fair use by non rights owners. Is it fair use to “curate” an image online when the intent of the “curator” is not to profit or impede your rights to your own image? Is there a way to make the use more fair by insisting all images have appropriate link backs to sources and those that don’t are removed?

11 Leanne February 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Sort of a follow-up to Karen’s Napster comment:

My husband works in the music industry and the effect of internet file sharing is thus: artists make way more money the more their work is “illegally” shared; record labels make far less money (catastrophically so) the more work is “illegally” shared.

This fact is born out again and again and again on all levels of music: from the Radioheads at the upper levels to bands like Wilco at mid level and the multitudes of smaller bands at lower levels that non of you would have heard about. What bands like Radiohead and Wilco discovered is that even when you purposefully give away your music for free, a segment of the audience will buy the packaged product on CD format, a segment will buy on LP (making a huge comeback), and an increasingly larger segment will go to a live show and spend money at the merch table. Bands make money on ticket sales and merch sales, not on CD sales. Only labels make any money on CD sales. Most bands of any quality release on multiple formats and provide a free download when the album is bought on vinyl.

Ultimately, what this does is ensure that bands who provide quality and substance will make a living doing what they love to do: make and play music. Entertainers who are essentially creations of labels, managers and producers who do not provide substantial entertainment will fall be the wayside.

In real world terms, how this works is: I heard an Adele song and I liked it, so I found a bit torrent of her 21 record and d\led it and listened to it obsessively on my ipod. Wanting a permanent copy because I liked it so much, I bought the CD. My husband then bought the Royal Albert Hall DVD for me for Christmas. If I hadn’t d/led 21 illegally to decide if I liked it enough to invest in it, I wouldn’t have bought either the CD or the DVD. Without illegal d/ling, Adele and her record company would have lost my two sales. And I’m merely an example of a million other people just like me around the world.

So, comparisons to Napster (by the media) are grossly uninformed and illogical. To apply it to the puddle jumper pic: Dani is not selling the pic to a mass market who has illegally posted the pic so that users can circumvent the retailer, which is essentially what Napster did.

12 Candace February 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Gah! Dani, you’re making me think! Stop it. Pinterest is my happy place, where I post all the pinteresting things I find. It’s where I collect pictures of all things cute on my Awww board and then spend time looking at them with my daughters. It’s where I dream about wearing beautiful retro clothes, and about my perfect white kitchen with no brown (blech) 😉 It’s where I find amazing quotes and hilarious jokes. It’s also where I totally decompress at the end of the day with incredible eye candy. *Sigh* The love affair couldn’t last forever I suppose. I have heard grumblings in the last few weeks. I see your point about stolen images and honestly that would never be my intention. I only think it’s pretty if I’ve pinned it, I’m not trying to claim it as my own 🙁

13 Danielle February 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Excellent post Dani. I, too, have been struggling with Pinterest since reading all of this new info. The confusing part is that they seem to be encouraging their users to violate their terms of use. And if the site isn’t for sharing other people’s content, what is it even for? LOL! I’m looking forward to seeing where all of this goes. Until then I’ve scaled back my use considerably as well and may consider deleting some of my boards. 🙁

14 DaniGirl February 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Interesting perspective Leanne. I have heard that about the music model, but to be honest? I’ve never illegally downloaded a song. Ever. Because of copyright. Now that’s just me, but as the child of a musician and someone who has spent a lot of her life in artistic circles, it’s ingrained in me to respect that.

Here’s another way to look at it. I can’t pin my own photographs to Pinterest if I’ve licensed them with Getty Images. If I do so, I violate the contract with Getty, which demands exclusivity with a few small exceptions along the lines of personal use and personal promotion. Authorizing anyone to licence or sell (!) that imagery (including things like entering certain contests or sharing via Instagram) violates the contract. But then anyone else who pins the puddle jumper picture also violates my contract with Getty on my behalf. I’ve posted it here on the blog and on Flickr, which is allowed under Getty’s agreement, but if someone else pins it, who has broken the copyright? Me or the pinner?

Now, my contractual relationship with Getty is the exception rather than the norm for photographs on the Internet — but the relationship between the copyright holder and the pinner is the same.

I dunno, the more I think about it the more I can’t see how I can use the site in good conscience anymore…

15 DaniGirl February 27, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Sorry, that took so long to type that I missed Danielle and Candace.

🙁 I know. Me too.

16 melissa February 27, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Like a lot of people, I use Pinterest as a visual bookmarking tool. I love seeing what people have discovered and saving it to try myself. I may not try everything I pin, but I don’t think I should be considered a bad user because my life doesn’t necessarily reflect my Pinterest page.

My intent has never been to rip off or infringe on a content creator’s copyright.

One of the first things I wondered about Pinterest was if a bunch of people pinned the same image, would the originator’s site take a major bandwidth hit? If pictures are reuploaded to Pinterest’s servers and linked back to the content owners site, I guess they don’t.

A question I’m wondering about now is, as an artist/content creator, would an artist rather have people pinning/sharing your content online with other people with credit back to the artist’s site, or would they prefer that that person download that inspiration to their own private version of Pinterest, online or offline. (Which from what I understand, could be something like Evernote or similar services, but I haven’t used that sort of thing myself.)

Not trying to be argumentative, but genuinely curious.

Some really interesting thoughts and comments here. They’ve got me thinking.

17 Neil February 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I’m glad someone mentioned Delicious as a bookmarking site, because that just better explains the difference between text bookmarking and visual bookmarking. On Delicious, I am “pinning” a link to the material. The link has no value on its own. It sends me to that site. I would not repin that link until I actually went to the site to read it myself. A photo is a very different animal. We aren’t pinning a link to a photo, but the actual photo itself, in high resolution. It is the equivalent of a site where we could just pin and repin entire blog posts on a third party site without ever going to the actual post.

18 Lynn February 28, 2012 at 11:00 am

I think a lot of it depends on what it is that is pinned. For me, when people pin my needlework photos it brings more attention to that side of my home business. More exposure of my quilts and needlework can bring in more business and custom jobs. On the other hand, I am also a Getty contributor so pinning of my photos violates that contract. I think having a link back to the original site is critical. When someone pins from my blog others can click through and find my site with all of my content together in context in one place.
It is a tricky thing and I have mixed feelings about it too. I pin but click through to the original post to make sure that my pin will link back to the original source. I have been thinking more about pinning and the consequences since joining with Getty. I think more about what it means to those who I am pinning.
Thanks for posting this, Dani.

19 DaniGirl February 28, 2012 at 5:09 pm

More good reading on the subject: http://www.theverge.com/2012/2/22/2806473/pinterest-copyright-law-and-the-power-of-money

And the MSM is taking notice, too: today’s Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/business/article/1137886–pinterest-s-copyright-concern-or-how-pinning-a-favourite-photo-can-lead-to-lawsuits

(I might be a little bit fixated on this issue right now!)

20 Sasha February 28, 2012 at 8:20 pm

I’ve been ambivalent about Pinterest – although mostly over the questionable value of spending my time pinning rather than doing. You have some excellent points here, I have to admit I looked at it mostly as a bookmarking tool, a convenient way to pin down something I’d like to come back to, with a visual index. And I’ve also explicitly included photos intended to attract pinning, like my Greek Yogurt Blueberry Muffin recipe.

But to answer your question, yes, I’m definitely looking at it differently now. That’s a very good point about images actually being uploaded to Pinterest. And the legal points blow me away. That’s some serious butt-covering Pinterest has managed to do, I wonder if it would stand up in court? Not that I’m interested in finding out.

It WOULD be really nice to have private boards – I’ve pinned stuff that is really of no interest to ANYONE, like random pictures of office supplies while looking for inspiration for a new blog theme. Presumably that would look after at least some of the thornier legal issues, too. Perhaps next time I need to bookmark something I’ll use, well, a bookmark.

21 Deb March 1, 2012 at 1:02 am

I find Pinterest interesting, but only on a very superficial level. It’s like a visual representation of the clutter of somebody’s mind. I pinned some of my own websites up and got excited to see other people re-pinning them, only to find they were rarely going to the website itself; they were only attracted by the pretty image. Shiny things I guess.

22 Charlie March 1, 2012 at 9:46 am

Great article. Food for thought. Much like the online movie/music piracy (torrents etc), I expect there are too many copyright infringers (users) to go after all of them, but if the industries and organisations that represent the copyright holders can’t find a way for Pinterest to continue operating (ie sharing revenues and seeking permissions), then perhaps they will start ‘making examples’ of people.

23 Cecil March 2, 2012 at 10:47 am

Great post, DaniGirl. As IP counsel for a large multinational, I’ve recently been advising my in-house marketers on the do’s and don’ts of Pinterest. Pinertest has done a great job, in the TOU, of leveraging the DMCA safe harbor provisions to protect itself, and shifting all copyright infringement liability to the user. Fair enough, but caveat emptor. Many people, including marketing professionals, are astonished to learn that they may be violating copyright laws through their use of services such as Pinterest.

There are good arguments for and against application of copyright law in these sorts of circumstances (usually depending on whether you are primarily a content creator or content consumer), but at least for now, the laws are what they are.

24 Amy @ Muddy Boots March 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

I read the article a couple days ago, so my recollection of the details might be a bit off, but doesn’t commenting/critiquing on the photo “cover” you somehow? I rarely re-pin something without adding notes on why I pinned it, and I never just comment with a ‘.’

Of more concern to me is the issue of Pinterest owning the rights to the images. But would that really hold up in court? If someone pinned a famous photograph, for example, would Pinterest really be able to claim -and sell!- that as their own?

Dani, does Getty have a stance on Pinterest? Have they said anything to their members?

25 Nick March 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm

As a web developer/designer/artist I’m waiting for Pinterest to allow you to specify an image that can be used for pining. I know they have the code to disallow pining of all images. It may be beneficial to say, “I’m happy you want to pin this site or image, here is the image you can use.” and it could contain a watermark to help provide some ownership.

This would allow the site owner to have the hand in deciding to and what to allow, while still getting the benefits of exposure.

26 DaniGirl March 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Amy, Getty has told us they are looking in to the Pinterest issue. I suspect there is no easy answer.

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