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Pinterest’s Challenging Copyright Issues, Part 1

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the copyright issues raised by Pinterest, a popular social image sharing site. Here’s one recent article about Pinterest; here’s another. What are the key points to understand about Pinterest and the legal questions it raises? Read on for Part 1 of this discussion on Pinterest copyright issues. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

Pinterest works like this: you “pin” images that you find online (or create yourself), and anyone who’s following you can look at those images. By clicking on a pinned image, they are taken to the website where the image originated. Pinterest users can “like” or share other users’ pins, so popular images can move around and be shared with a wide audience.

The legal issue is that the right to share images online is governed by copyright law. Section 106 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 states: “[T]he owner of copyright under this title…has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies…” This law applies to various types of works, including…”pictorial, [and] graphic…works” U.S. Copyright Act, Section 102(a)(5). So, at a basic level, it’s easy to see that there might be an issue with Pinterest, which allows users to make copies of pictorial/graphic works.

Pinterest’s terms of use can be found here. As of this writing, they were last updated on March 29, 2011. The terms of use contain some important definitions:

  • “Content” means text, graphics, images, music, software, audio, video, information or other materials.
  • “Member Content” means all Content that a Member posts, uploads, publishes, submits or transmits to be made available through the Site, Application or Services.

The terms of use goes on to say:

By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to Cold Brew Labs [Pinterest’s owner] a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services.

I added the italics to highlight a few terms that are of particular interest. Let’s compare this language to the terms found on Yahoo! (owner of the photo-sharing site Flickr) and Facebook:

Yahoo! Terms of Service


Yahoo! does not claim ownership of Content you submit or make available for inclusion on the Yahoo! Services. However, with respect to Content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Yahoo! Services, you grant Yahoo! the following worldwide, royalty-free and non-exclusive license(s)…to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Yahoo! Services solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available. This license exists only for as long as you elect to continue to include such Content on the Yahoo! Services and will terminate at the time you remove or Yahoo! removes such Content from the Yahoo! Services.

Facebook Terms of Service

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

Each of these services – Pinterest, Flickr/Yahoo!, and Facebook – also include language to the effect that you are responsible for what you post on the service and that you may not post anything that is in violation of another person’s copyright rights. But it’s important to take note of some subtle differences here:

1. As you can see from the highlighted areas of the various services’ terms of use, Pinterest takes a fairly broad approach to its rights in pinned images. Yahoo!/Flickr and Facebook both include language to the effect that their license to use the images can be terminated by the copyright owner at any time. Contrast this to Pinterest’s terms of use, in which, if you are the copyright owner and you pin an image on Pinterest, you have no right to ever take that image down, and Pinterest has the right to do whatever it wants with that image (within the context of Pinterest’s Site, Application or Services), forever. It remains to be seen whether a license this expansive would hold up in court.

2. Pinterest is clearly oriented toward users taking images from the Internet – images that, in most case, the users didn’t create – and sharing those images. The “What is Pinterest?” page starts out by saying, “Pinterest is a Virtual Pinboard. Pinterest lets you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web.” Of course, Flickr and Facebook can be used to share all sorts of images. But my experience is that the latter two services are used primarily for individuals to share their own personal photos.

Check back here tomorrow for Part 2, in which I’ll analyze some of these legal issues and discuss the question of whether individual Pinterest users should be afraid of being sued just for using the service.

UPDATE: Click here for Part 2.

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