A Word of Caution for Pinterest Users

Pinterest LogoI’ve been talking a great deal about Pinterest these past few weeks, not just because the new social network has become such a hot topic, but because its approach to sharing images is so radically different (and legally dubious) that it has many artists and photographers wondering what to do.

However, there is another angle that hasn’t been explored much and that’s the risk to the users of the service.

Pinterest has made it pretty clear in its terms of service that the onus on the user to ensure their pins don’t violate the law, an observation also made by The Atlantic Wire, and the site’s DMCA policy further separates them from the actions of their users.

But the real concern came to light in a conversation I had last week with Matthew Chan fro Extortion Letter Info. Chan is on the forefront in monitoring and reporting on the stock photo industry’s massive copyright push.

To date, the campaign has largely taken the form of a stock photo agency locating an infringing use of an image and then sending settlement demand letters to the people behind those sites. Though no one knows the exact number of letters sent, the number likely dwarfs nearly all other copyright enforcement efforts.

But with images from these stock photo agencies appearing on Pinterest at a rapid clip, what’s to stop them from doing the same to Pinterest users? The answer: Not a lot.

The Potential for Danger

The problem is pretty straightforward. When Pinterest users “pin” an image, what they’re actually doing is copying the image from the source, uploading it to Pinterest’s servers and then displaying it on their board, profile and account.

While many visual artists are happy to allow and encourage this, exploiting the social nature of Pinterest the best that they can, the stock photo agencies have a long history of clamping down on unlicensed uses of their images.

To make matters worse, there’s little to no anonymity with Pinterest. When you create an account, your real name is on display along with, in many cases, your Facebook profile and other information about you.

Most Pinterest users are just a few quick searches away from being identified well enough to be targeted with a physical letter. Considering that Pinterest is kind enough to break down the images by source, as you can see with this page of photos from Getty Images’ site, it would be trivial for the stock photo agencies (or any other artist) to start targeting Pinterest users with settlement demands.

So, even if Pinterest is able to defend itself against all of the legal challenges it faces, its users might not be so lucky. With less resources to fight back and being much closer to the actual infringement, the users would face an uphill battle if there were a campaign against them.

The Good News

The good news in all of this is that this exercise, right now, is purely hypothetical. There have been no threats made (that I’m aware of) and the major stock photo agencies don’t seem to even be blocking Pinterest yet. Any move like this would, almost certainly, be prefaced with widespread blocking and takedown notices against Pinterest, something we’re not seeing.

Also, it’s worth noting that the stock photo agencies, for the most part, have not targeted individuals but have focused on businesses and sites making commercial use of their images. To my knowledge, they have not widely targeted non-commercial uses. Businesses are simply safer and more lucrative targets for such an effort.

Finally, such a move would be wildly unpopular and would draw a great deal of negative attention to the campaign. Businesses and commercial use draws a lot less sympathy in general and the stock photo industry has worked hard to keep this campaign out of the limelight.

However, the danger is still there and the stock photo agencies are far form the only zealous copyright holders with images on Pinterest. It would only take one to send shockwaves through the whole system, making it something users need to be aware of.

Bottom Line

If I were an active Pinterest user (and not just some guy sitting on an empty account) I wouldn’t be too worried about this, at least not yet. Most photographers are still trying to figure out how to take Pinterest and the biggest copyright hassles you’re realistically likely to face is a few sites that block pinning and, perhaps, a few DMCA takedown notices.

Pinterest itself, most likely, faces far more copyright challenges than its users. Anyone interested enough in stopping “pinning” of their images to litigate would likely go after the source of the matter as it would be more effective and more lucrative.

Still, it’s important to remember when you’re pinning that you’re doing so with your real name, that many copyright holders of images have been very zealous and litigious in the past and Pinterest makes it easy for copyright holders to find out who pinned their work.

This makes it critical, at the very least, to be careful what you pin, where you pin it from and that you do it respectfully. With so many issues around Pinterest unsettled, I don’t think anyone wants to be the test case.

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