Isn’t it funny how the virtual world seems to command less respect for logical and moralistic stances than ‘real world’ scenarios? Let’s say you knock on my door and tell me you live down the street, have lost your keys and would like to borrow some tools to pick the lock. I say sure as long as you own the house, here you go. Now you need a place to store some items from your house. I say ok, I have an empty shed; you can store it in there. You can come and look at it whenever you like. You can use it whenever you like, but you can never own it ever again, it’s mine now and if I feel like I want to sell it to make space in my shed, well then I can. Ridiculous much?

 I just gave you the tools to break into a house which may or may not have been yours, just because you said you own it. You don’t think I will have any use for the objects you are storing in my shed so in good faith you believe I won’t sell them. This is the basis of operation of the latest craze in social networking, Pinterest.

Pinterest is a social site which allows pinners (users) to pin and share images on virtual boards. These may be organised according to themes and linked to Facebook and Twitter. In terms of site popularity, the numbers speak for themselves with over 12 million users amassed in less than 1 year. The site was the brainchild of two Yale graduates, Ben Silberman and Paul Sciarra and designer Evan Sharp.

What’s all the fuss?

Operating in good faith may be all good and well when things go smoothly and you trust that both parties are complying with the rules, but what happens when the real house owner gets back and all his possessions are in my shed? What if I need some money and decide that selling your property is a good idea?

Broadly, the Pinterest copyright wrangle involves two camps spawning debates over the issue of copyright infringement and image ownership with the use of Pinterest. On the one hand, users feel they are doing image owners (be they photographers or brand identities) a favour by increasing site traffic. On the other hand, this only really works in theory since it would require the image being referenced or linked back to the original source. Understandably, creators (thus entitled to the copyright of their images) want to be credited for their work and in many cases, need this credit to generate income for their businesses. Currently, pinners reference the source as where they came across the image, thus not guaranteeing a reroute to the original creator.

What does the law say?

Pinterest’s own legal interests are cleverly covered, complying with both US and UK law. But their concerns don’t stretch to protecting their users. Pinterest terms state:

By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to Cold Brew Labs a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services. Cold Brew Labs does not claim any ownership rights in any such Member Content and nothing in these Terms will be deemed to restrict any rights that you may have to use and exploit any such Member Content.

And

…you represent and warrant that: (i) you either are the sole and exclusive owner of all Member Content that you make available through the Site, Application and Services or you have all rights, licenses, consents and releases that are necessary to grant to Cold Brew Labs the rights in such Member Content, as contemplated under these Terms.

So what does all that legal mumbo-jumbo mean?

  • If a pinner owns an image or the rights thereto, they pass these over to Pinterest when they pin their images. Note that once you have done this there is no going back – the license handed over is irrevocable and they do not have to pay you for use of your image (royalty-free). This is different to say, the Facebook policy which terminates the license agreement when users delete their content and where no mention of selling of your content is made. In fact, sites such as Facebook and Google + have explained their terms of use as a necessary means of sharing your content as you specify and as a means of facilitating site functionality. Pinterests’ terms makes no such indications.
  • Pinterest have covered their own legal bases fairly well (both in terms of UK as well as American copyright law), which is good news for them but not so great for you if you’re a pinner. The terms state that you need to own rights to the content you upload or at least gain permission. A simple search of ‘copyright infringement’ and ‘Pinterest’ brings up a multitude of angry copyright holders whose rights have been infringed by pinners simply lifting their content and pinning it to their boards without proper links back to the original source and without further credit or permission. This puts pinners in a rather precarious position – you may be pinpointed as the infringer and may be subject to having legal action taken against you.

In other words, Pinterest may have facilitated pinners violations by ‘handing over the lock-pick’ but they believed it was your house, so whether or not they provided the tools, they are in the clear.

Pinterests POA:

Pinterest has attempted to combat copyright issues by two main strategies:

  1. Pinterest provides a line of code which can be implemented by site owners to disable pinning of their content. Flickr (the third largest contributor to Pinterest images) has implemented this code to all “non-public/nonsafe sites”. However, many content owners feel it unfair to have to insert this code to prevent infringement by users who should not be infringing in the first place. It’s a bit like saying, ‘since I didn’t put any burglar bars on my house, it’s ok for you to come in and pin(ch) my possessions’.
  2. Pinterest allows image/copyright owners to report infringing content and request its removal. A major disadvantage to this is the difficulty presented by pinners not referencing original source links – thus in practice there is no simple way of locating pinners violating your copyright.

The bottom line:

The principles governing Pinterest provide useful social platforms and could present good marketing opportunities if used correctly, but the policy terms and combat strategy for copyright infringement should be more enabling to copyright holders and less so to infringers. Of course, this is a rather moral and idealistic view, and, since Pinterest themselves are not breaking any laws, they are under no obligation to change their strategies. For now, it is up to pinners and copyright owners alike to police their own activities and those of potential infringers.

By Ghabiba Weston

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