New Social Media Darling Pinterest and Copyright Law

This weekend I participated in PodCamp Toronto, an unconference about social media with hundreds of participants. We had close to 80 sessions over the weekend, and a good number of them talked about or mentioned the newest social media darling, Pinterest. As a long-time blogger, I think of Pinterest as a photo blog with some advanced functionality, but the rest of the world sees it more like an online scrap book or bulletin board. With Pinterest, users “pin” images they have found around the Internet that inspire them to a “pin board”. Individuals can have many different pin boards. People can repin images they see on other pinboards to their own boards. And the platform is taking the social media world by storm, feeding into the whole new content curation frenzy.

Because of its visual nature, pinboards are being used extensively for things like collecting design, home decor and clothing ideas. Libraries are collecting covers of books on different topics. And one of my favourite examples is marketing guru/speaker/author David Meerman Scott’s Great Surfing Waves! pin board that he has tucked in amongst his boards of marketing infographics and ebooks.

Pinterest: Great Surfing Waves from David Meerman Scott

So what’s the problem?

Well,Kirsten Kowalski, a U.S.-based photographer who also happens to be a lawyer decided to dig a little deeper after the question of copyright came up amongst her friends on Facebook. The results are her extensive discussion in the February 24th blog post Why I Tearfully Deleted My Pinterest Inspiration Boards. Here is a brief summary of her discussion:

  • The culture amongst Pinterest users is that sharing photos and other images you have created yourself is too much self-promotion. As a result, users take others’ images from all over the internet for use on pin boards.
  • A link is retained back to the original websites the image came from, so there is an impression people will click through to those sites; however, most people do not click through, but instead just “repin” to their own boards.
  • The images being used are larger than thumbnails (which caselaw has shown are acceptable to use without specific permission).
  • The Pinterest’s user agreement says that users should only post that which they have copyright permission to post. And the company that owns Pinterest absolves itself of any liability.
  • This is similar to the user agreement from the former music sharing site Napster, and a lot of people ended up being sued for their use of the site.

So, individuals need to ask themselves if it is worth the risk to pin others’ images. Kowalski decided that, for her, it was not.

What about you–do you think the risk is low? And what about copyright laws–do they need to catch up to use as it is changing?


  1. Pinterest has many uses. I use Pinterest to create fashion inspiration boards. I pin images of products found on online retailers’ websites — many of these retailers, as well as fashion designers and fashion magazines, have their own Pinterest accounts and I often ‘repin’ their images, too. Let’s just say, I’m not in any hurry to delete my account for fear of copyright infringement. These companies are using Pinterest as a social media marketing tool and I’m doing exactly what they want me to do by sharing their products. I understand that the author of the original article was using Pinterest in a different way than I do, but I think it’s important to note that Pinterest has more obvious “legitimate” uses compared to a file sharing platform like Napster.

    Pinterest’s built-in link-back attribution for all images posted from the web is a far-cry better than other popular image sharing sites, like Tumblr, which offers no attribution unless the user specifically includes an attribution link (which can be altered any time someone reblogs the image). It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. Pinterest is also actively improving attribution in other ways, such as cutting the character limit down on captions to 500 — preventing people from, for example, pinning entire recipes (which, understandably, was making recipe bloggers angry as no one had to visit their websites).

    I will be surprised if copyright law can keep up with the rate at which technology is changing the way we share/consume/etc. copyrighted materials. There are, and have always been, risks to consider when putting your original work online. Photographers have faced the problem of safeguarding digital images before Pinterest, and when no one cares about Pinterest anymore, photographers will still face this problem. That’s why they add watermarks to digital images, or add code to their websites/blogs that prevents users from right clicking their images to ‘save as’. There is also code that blocks others from being able to use the ‘pin it’ button on your website. A quick Google search will give you instructions to add this code — if you can copy/paste you can do it!

    The author of the article raises many valid and interesting points, and kudos to her for taking action in what she believes and closing her account. However, I will continue to pin without fear! :)

  2. Thank you, Emily. There is great opportunity here for organizations, brands, and individuals to make their content available explicitly for pinning. If they post their content directly on Pinterest, then that is even better.

    I agree, it does not mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater (as the saying goes). It is just that even if people are aware of copyright implications, they think that using Pinterest somehow sanctions their use of others’ images. It does not necessarily mean that use is legal. When I was researching this blog post I also saw some people complaining that they couldn’t understand Pinterest’s terms of agreement.

    I’m not a fan, however, of using technology to enforce the law. We see that also with ebooks, movies and other areas that use digital rights management. So often things get locked down to the extreme that even if there are legitimate uses they get blocked. In an ideal world photographers should not have to lock down their own content.

    We still have a long way to go to figuring out the balance.

  3. Agreed, Connie! I would much prefer an expectation of digital literacy to enforced DRM.

  4. Phil Bradley has done a nice job of discussing the pros and cons of Pinterest, and characterizes it more as a bookmarking site that incorporates visuals. An equally valid view of it:

  5. Just to share another viewpoint, here’s an article by an advertising lawyer about how brands can minimize copyright infringement risks on Pinterest

  6. Brilliant–thanks for the link, Emily! I think there is a great opportunity for brands to create content that is “pinnable”. I strongly suggest those who want to allow the use of their content to license it under Creative Commons.