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Is Pinterest Legal?

ImagePinterest has been the name on everyone’s lips this past month – and not just as the hot new social media site. The photo-sharing site has come under fire from lawyers and copyright experts who claim that it facilitates copyright infringement. Here’s a look at the arguments for and against Pinterest’s business model.

When you pin an image, you’re copying that image to their servers and displaying it publicly. But do you have the right to do that? Most images on the web are not in the public domain. If you look at Pinterest’s terms of service, you’ll see a clause that says that you must be the copyright holder for any image you pin, or otherwise have permission to post it. Furthermore, you give Pinterest the right to redistribute, copy, edit, sell, or do whatever they want with your image. However, most pins probably aren’t made by the rights holder, and in fact, Pinterest etiquette explicitly frowns on self-promotion. Thus, the criticism is twofold: one, that the Pinterest community encourages posting infringing images (and violating its own terms of service!), and two, that the site is then claiming rights on images when it cannot legally do so.

What’s the big deal? This is no different from linking a favourite site on Tumblr or uploading a movie clip on Youtube, right? Maybe not. Critics of Pinterest say it’s worse than other media-sharing sites because its entire model appears to be based around sharing other people’s work. Tumblr and Youtube encourage uploading your own material over uploading someone else’s; Pinterest does the opposite. Some rights holders are also concerned that pins will divert traffic away from their sites. Yes, pinning automatically links back to the originating site, but since you’re sharing the entire image, there’s often no need to click through. And if it’s a repin, or was uploaded from another aggregate site, it gets harder to track down the original source.

If you want to be absolutely, airtight, copyright-safe on Pinterest, you should make sure you have the right to upload any image you pin. Only pin images you own, that you have permission to use from the owner, or that are in the public domain. (If you’re not sure whether you have the right, the answer is probably no.) Look for websites that invite you to share content by displaying a “Pin this!” button.

You’ll notice that Geek Girl’s own Pinterest boards don’t follow the above rules. That’s because doing so would leave us (and all users) with very little to pin! The important thing to remember is that although we may be showing off other people’s work, the intent is not to steal from them, but simply to share our interests. It’s not far removed from linking to a website directly (like I’ve been doing in this article). Proper Pinterest use should consider the website as what it claims to be: a digital pinboard. If you think of what an old-school cork board would have on it, it wouldn’t just be personal photos. It would be cute cartoons from newspapers, neat photos from magazines, or anything else you wanted to share. Some of that sharing might technically be illegal without permission, but even the most staunch copyright defender wouldn’t sue over one.

Pinterest does have the ability to claim that pinning is fair use because pins are used for personal, non-commercial reasons, and because users are able to flag images they believe are not being used fairly. So it’s extremely unlikely that you’d be slapped with a lawsuit just for your uploads. But show some courtesy. Always try to pin directly from the original source, or if you can’t, name the source in the description. And when you view other pins, make the effort to click through to the source. If Pinterest’s lawyers can show that pinning is actually helping the creators by driving traffic to them, that would strengthen their fair use case considerably. Site founder Ben Silbermann is well aware of the legal grey area his site can fall into, and respects the rights of creators who don’t want their work pinned. For now, he’s come up with a piece of code that website owners can add that will block Pinterest from accessing their sites. He also promises new changes to the site format and terms of service in the very near future. As long as people use the website sensibly and in the spirit of sharing, Pinterest will be able to grow and connect more people to the things they love.

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About Courtney

Postgraduate student in book and magazine publishing. My geeky areas of specialty are video games, TV, and webcomics. I like discussing philosophy and politics, playing piano, and drawing, those last two poorly. ;)

Discussion

One thought on “Is Pinterest Legal?

  1. Until Pinterest makes their site good for the creator, I’m not going to use it. I fee as someone who creates content online (which is already hard enough to get paid a living wage to do as it is) that I shouldn’t be using it.

    Posted by Megan Patterson | March 7, 2012, 10:16 pm

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