Very Pinteresting . . .

Any society that needs disclaimers has too many lawyers.
— Erik Pepke

Disclaimer: Although I am a lawyer, I am not an intellectual property attorney, and nothing in this post is intended or should be construed as legal advice.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of Pinterest, a web-based social bulletin board of sorts.  I joined last fall, but in the past couple of months, I’ve become a daily user, and I really enjoy it. You can find me here.

Just this past week, however, people are all abuzz over Pinterest’s terms of service, many of them pinning a giant pin that says, “Dear Pinterest, Please change your terms of service or I’m leaving.”  The pin links to this site, which briefly parses the terms of service, basically just to raise awareness about what we’re all getting ourselves into.

I actually became aware of the “problem” last week, through this brief article in the ABA newsletter.  Basically, the deal is this:

Pinterest’s terms of use require that you agree to post only your own original content (because you own the copyright to that) or content created by others from whom you’ve obtained express permission to post on Pinterest.  Additionally, Pinterest puts all the liability on you in the event that you are accused of a copyright violation.

This is pretty standard stuff – they don’t want to be on the hook, given the insane amount of content that is posted on their site daily; there’s simply no way they could curate it all.  And I don’t think that, in itself, this is that big a deal – Pinterest has a very straightforward procedure to handle copyright complaints.  Pinterest will remove content at the request of the copyright’s owner, and, ideally, that will be the end of that, although Pinterest does reserve the right to prosecute you for any violations of the terms of service.

The terms of use also state that you grant Pinterest the right to license or sell the content you post.  This, as the site linked to above explains, means that if you post a picture from my site to your Pinterest Board without my express permission, Pinterest can sell that picture, perhaps to a marketing company that uses it to advertise a product.  If I see the advertisement and call foul, the company will head to Pinterest, which will waste no time at all fingering you, and the next thing you know, you and I are squaring off in court.  I do think this is pretty shitty, given that it’s YOU who will be on the hook for the copyright violation when it was Pinterest who sold the thing in the first place.

As I said, though, these terms are pretty standard.  The problems I have with them are these:

1. Pinterest bills itself as a social media site – the point is “to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests.”  Part of the fun is seeing what your friends (and strangers) pin and then repinning those images to boards of your own, often starting a conversation when you see who else likes the things you do.  If you can only pin things you own the copyright to or things that you have express permission from the copyright owner to pin, the social aspect absolutely disappears, except for “likes” and comments.

2. If Pinterest was serious about preventing copyright violations, and it says it “respects the intellectual property of others and expects its users to do the same,” it should have come up with a better model.  I’m thinking of something along the lines of the way you can set your account on Facebook to require the site to seek permission from you when someone wants to tag a picture you’ve posted.

As it stands now, no one has any control over what’s posted.  For example, say I pin my own picture, and my friend Karen asks me if she can repin it.  Of course I’m going to say yes.  But once it’s on her board, I’ve lost control of it – her friends can repin at will without ever getting my permission, even though my permission is non-transferable.  The same is true for something I post from someone whom I’ve sought express permission to do so – I can’t transfer that permission to Karen, but there’s nothing to stop Karen and her friends and their friends from repinning it anyway.

3. Look at the link I just posted and the examples Pinterest gives of how to use the site – click on one to enlarge it.  There is no way “Joy” owns the copyright to all those pictures, and she has not cited the source of the picture in the caption (which is supposedly good pinning etiquette).  “Tim” certainly didn’t take that picture of the D&G belt he’s got posted on his style board.  Pinterest is actively encouraging you to use its service in a way that violates its terms of use.  This is the one that bothers me the most.

To be honest, though, I am actually not too worried about all of this for one simple reason: Aside from situations in which people attempt to profit from images posted on Pinterest to which they do not own the copyright, I find it very hard to believe that the companies and people who do own the copyrights will object to their images being pinned on Pinterest.  Because almost no one pins things they don’t like, it’s essentially free advertising for stuff people love, and if you’re a business, that’s always good.  If you’re a blogger and you monetize your site, well, more page views equals more money for you.  If you don’t monetize, it’s still great to get eyes on your blog; it increases community and you never know what will come of it.  Maybe this is simplistic, I don’t know, but that’s the way I see it.

Again, this is not my area of the law; I have no idea how things will shake out.  As the ABA article says, “Courts are still deciding whether the site owner or the user owner should be ultimately responsible.”  Obviously, when you signed up for Pinterest, you agreed to the terms of use, and you’re bound by them.  Of course, like most people, you probably didn’t read them.  I know I didn’t (bad lawyer!).  Hopefully this discussion will get you to do your own research and decide for yourself whether you’ll change your pinning ways, delete your account, or continue on as before.

(Lawyers, chime in if I’ve misstated or misrepresented anything – I’d be happy to make corrections.)

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2 thoughts on “Very Pinteresting . . .

  1. This cracks me up. Their terms of service want you to use your original content (or that which you have permission to post). But in their “Etiquette” section, there is this:

    Avoid Self Promotion
    Pinterest is designed to curate and share things you love. If there is a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However, try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.

    So, use content of which I own the rights, but don’t use Pinterest to promote my own work. Huh, wha?

    • Well, I think they mean, you can pin your own pictures of stuff, but you shouldn’t pin pics from, say, your Etsy shop in the hopes that people will buy from you.

      But yeah; they have some work to do on the TOS. That ABA article I linked to says the Pinterest founder contacted her and asked for her suggestions and told her they are looking into reworking them, so we’ll see.

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