WhatToPin.com: Copyright and the Pinterest Cottage Industry

What to Pin LogoThe story of Pinterest has been one of great duality. Though the site has rocketed to social networking prominence in recent months, it’s been dogged by questions about it approach to copyrighted works. Though they’ve taken steps to address those issues, including a recent update to their terms of service, many feel that they haven’t done enough and that the entire system is built around infringing the rights of others.

However, as Pinterest has risen to fame, an entire cottage industry would build up around it. This includes everything from experts that claim to help you use Pinterest for promotion to sites that help you find the best content to pin.

This, in turn, raises a whole new series of copyright questions, namely if these sites are respecting copyright and how they are impacting content creators.

With that in mind, a reader of Plagiarism Today gave me a heads up to check out the site WhatToPin.com saying that the site was taking images from third parties and encouraging Pinterest users to pin the images not from the source, but from their domain.

I took a look at the site and found that her concerns were more than justified.

What is WhatToPin.com

WhatToPin.com ImageAt first glance, WhatToPin.com looks a great deal like Pinterest itself with a similar image-heavy layout. However, rather than being a collection of things “pinned” by users of the site, all of the content on the site was chosen by its operator, Mike Sutton.

The site is broken up into categories including DIY, food, home, photography, travel and weddings as well as having a top 100 list. All of the images come from other sites but the images on Whattopin.com are hosted on its domain itself rather than being hotlinked. According to Sutton, this is done by pulling down the images posted to various sites in their RSS feeds and republishing the images on his site.

WhatToPin.com does provide attribution with every image, including links on the image itself, the headline and the byline to it. However, that attribution isn’t always perfect as this example shows, where the attribution points to the main site and not the individual post.

However, even when the attribution does work out well, WhatToPin.com still makes the core of its focus encouraging users to pin directly from its site. What that means is that, when the image is placed on Pinterest, the image is attributed back to WhatToPin.com and not the source of the image, as shown above.

When it comes to getting pins, WhatToPin.com has been very successful, with many of its posts getting thousands of pins, all using work taken from another sites.

WhatToPin.com then turns at least some of this traffic into revenue via Google Adsense ads sprinkled throughout the site.

Clearly this gives artists a great deal to worry about. The commercial reuse of other’s images for the purpose of re-pinning in a way that fails to point to the original source (at least in the pin itself) will certainly give many artists reasons to pause. So, with these concerns in mind I wrote Sutton himself to see if and how he would address them.

WhatToPin.com’s Response

Sutton was kind enough to respond to my questions on the matter highlighted. When asked where he got the images and why he felt it was acceptable to use them, he responded saying:

“Every image on WhatToPin is found in a RSS feed published by the original source. I’m constantly searching for sites that would be of interest to my users (recipe sites, crafting sites, etc.), and if I find one that meets my standards and the site publicly publishes an RSS feed, I subscribe to it.
((In a Later Question))
I do not display any images that were not published publicly through an RSS feed. Most photographers and artists do not publish RSS feeds for this very reason.

However, the argument that it’s OK to use images in RSS feeds falls flat for severals reason. I first covered those reasons in 2006 and revisited them again in 2011.

Second, Sutton also claims that his service is legal because he does not copy the full image and, instead, the images he copies are limited to just 300px per side. He cites a 2003 case that found such posting “thumbnails” image images to be legal.

However, that argument too is on very shaky ground. First, 300px is far larger than what most would consider a thumbnail. With Google Image search, the largest image is about 200px on a side. Furthermore, the case itself, Kelly v. Arriba Soft, only dealt with images that were about that size as well. That is a huge difference in image size, comparing up to 90,000 pixels maximum on WhatToPin.com and 40,000 pixels maximum on Google, making WhatToPin.com’s images potentially more than 2x the size.

But even if the sizing were found to be acceptable, with regards to the other fair use factors, the case dealt with an image search engine in a very different position than a site encouraging people to repin an image without significant search, commentary or other value that’s also for a commercial use. In short, WhatToPin.com’s position under fair use is much less clear than Sutton would like to believe.

All of this, of course, ignores the fact that fair use is a defense, not a right, and a difficult one to use under the best of conditions.

Finally, Sutton said that, to date, several sites have asked to be in and only one photographer has asked to be removed. However, given the difficulties in tracking images online, especially in large numbers, the latter is not very surprising.

But with all of the controversy Pinterest has been drawing in recent weeks, it seems almost certain that at least some of that, with time, will spill over to WhatToPin.com and sites like it.

Bottom Line

To be clear, there is a lot of legitimate potential for a site like WhatToPin.com. An aggregation site that helps people find interesting images to share on Pinterest and direct them to the source of those images, could be a great service to hurried Pinterest users.

However, such a service would mean that WhatToPin.com wouldn’t be the one getting the links in Pinterest and the traffic that comes from that. It would be a tougher road but it would be one that’s much more symbiotic in nature and working harder to support original artists.

Another solution would be, since some sites want to be included, to only include those that opt in. With those, you could do far more including having the full-size images. It would mean some leg work getting permission (and making sure people owned the images they were giving permission for), but it could make WhatToPin.com a much more compelling service and one that was beyond question on the front of legality.

In the end, the choice is up to Sutton. But no matter what he does, there will be plenty of other sites that try to build a presence supporting Pinterest and they too will raise complex copyright issues.

The one thing that is clear is that the copyright controversy over Pinterest isn’t limited to Pinterest itself, but is about to get a whole lot more broad.

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