Intellectual Property and Pinterest

By Jeremy Smith *

Pinterest LogoThe popularity of Pinterest has exploded over the past year.  The online platform, which allows users to post or “pin” images that they find interesting, is viewed by some as a creative community platform and by others as a serious threat to copyright holders.  While some businesses have chosen to use the platform to launch marketing campaigns, independent photographers and graphic artists are increasingly wary of how their work might be used by members.  Some Pinterest members have also become concerned about how the site’s terms of service (TOS) allocate responsibility for use of copyrighted materials.

photo credit: Kristiewells (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristiewells/6710257121/)

photo credit: Kristiewells (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristiewells/6710257121/)

Given the ephemeral nature of internet law, it is as yet unclear what long-term impact Pinterest might have on debates about digital rights ownership.  At the heart of the potential copyright problems associated with Pinterest is the intricate field of intellectual property law.  Courts have struggled to reach a consensus about what does—and does not–violate the rights of intellectual property holders.  The field is largely precedent-driven, meaning that website developers may not fully understand the repercussions of the platforms they launch.  It is certain that users of Pinterest may be liable to legal action thanks to legislation that allows law enforcement agencies to obtain the IP addresses of copyright infringers.  Such concerns may be alleviated for now, as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) has been blocked on the house floor.

The set-up of Pinterest is relatively simple: users can create various bulletin boards, on which they pin images they find anywhere on the Internet.  Some individuals use their bulletin boards to collect and share images of items they want to buy, while other post interior design or cooking inspiration. It is likely that major corporations are not overly bothered by the free advertising potential offered by the platform.

However, the platform is more problematic for photographers and visual designers who make a living from selling their work.  Pinterest does not require that users attribute the copyright holder of photographs.  While some users provide links to the original image, many pin images without attribution.  According to the Pinterest TOS, users are giving consent to the company to use the images in any fashion it desires.

If Pinterest uses images in violation of the copyright holder’s wishes, are they culpable? According to their TOS, they are not.  In a clever move, the company has included in its TOS, which all users must agree to, that a user must either own the copyright to images they pin or have the copyright owner’s express permission to use them.  The majority of users do not seem to have permission to use copyrighted materials.  In all likelihood, they have no intentions to infringe the creator’s intellectual property rights and do not understand the repercussions of doing so.

Users are left culpable for using copyrighted materials.  Thanks to the relative ease by which law enforcement agencies can obtain user IP addresses, Pinterest users could be found liable for copyright infringement.  Pinterest has cleverly skirted responsibility by complying with the minimum requirements of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA is designed to punish people who knowingly violate copyright law or other distribution protections.  In particular, it criminalizes anything or anyone providing assistance with defeating copyright protections on a particular work.  The company provides a platform for copyright holders to report infringements, thus potentially canceling out its own culpability.  Until internet and IP laws become clearer, users of Pinterest would be well-served by treading carefully.

*  Jeremy Smith is an independent writer for Lawyers.com with a keen interest in the intersection of Internet marketing and intellectual property law.  Mr. Smith received a bachelor of business administration degree from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  He has been fascinated with Internet Marketing and the continual innovation of social networks, such as Pinterest, for the past eight years.  Originally from Portland, Oregon, Mr. Smith currently resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia where he is a freelancer by day and a craft brew lover by night.