Pinterest and copyright infringement

I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of Pinterest until a month or so ago. But over the past few weeks, the social networking site has been garnering a fair level of publicity.

For those that aren’t familiar with Pinterest, it is essentially a virtual pinboard that users can use to share photos, videos and other things. Pinterest appears to make its money (or at least some money – it is still running at a loss) through affiliate fees paid by retailers whose products are “pinned” to the website by users. That’s all fine and good for retailers, who receieve additional publicity (and therefore increased sales) through sharing on Pinterest; it’s a win-win.

The problem is that content pinned to Pinterest is actually copied and hosted on Pinterest’s servers.

So if I spot a photo I like on another website, and want to share it on Pinterest, Pinterest will duplicate that photo and host a copy of it locally. If that is done without the consent of the copyright holder in that content, then that is potentially copyright infringement.

Of course, if a website allows users to view content hosted on another website without actually visiting that other website, that other website will lose out on traffic. Losing out on traffic means less advertising revenue for sites that make their money through advertising.

Pinterest puts the onus on the user to ensure it is entitled to share the content in question. But that hasn’t stopped widespread sharing of third party content.

A right to opt-out
So to answer concerns from rights holders, earlier this week Pinterest announced that it was allowing websites to “opt-out” of Pinterest. The move measure is quite simple: websites simply need to add this line of code to each page:

<meta name="pinterest" content="nopin" />

Once the code has been added, users will be unable to share content from that website on Pinterest. Pinterest has also introduced a process for copyright owners to have their content removed from the website. This take down process is similar to what other content sharing websites (such as YouTube) offer, and is required under US law in order for the wbesite operator to qualify for “safe harbor” protection from copyright infringement claims.

Blipfoto’s stance
The first website I am aware of to announce an opt out is the photoblog website, Blipfoto. Blipfoto’s founder, Joe Tree, posted a blog yesterday explaining its decision, and stating that the system should operate on an opt-in basis, rather than and opt-out.

Whilst an opt-out approach would go against the ethos of the internet and social media (see below), Blipfoto does raise some valid points.

Most notably, whilst Blipfoto’s website encourages sharing of photos posted on Blipfoto, such sharing (through Facebook and Twitter etc) always links back to the photo hosted on Blipfoto’s servers. This not only avoids potential copyright infringement by those sharing the content, but also gives the user who posted that photo control – if he wishes to delete a photo, he can do so. Contrast this with the same photo shared on Pinterest and the user no longer has control. Indeed, he or she may not know that it has been (re)posted on Pinterest.

If I were being cynical, I’d point out that Blipfoto does not own the copyright in (or have an exclusive licence to) its users’ photos either, and that it should surely be up to each Blipfoto user (not Blipfoto) to decide whether to allow Pinterest sharing. But regardless of whether Blipfoto’s decision is a commercial one or a moral one, comments on the official Blipfoto blog suggest that its users are with it on this one.

History repeating itself?
We have, of course, been here before with content sharing websites such as Napster and YouTube (as this discussion on LinkedIn discusses), and with each of those sites a mature solution was found to address the interests of rights holders.

Had YouTube and others needed the copyright owner’s opt-in at the outset, it is almost certain those sites would have failed years ago. At least the Pinterest’s opt-out process gives rights holders an effective way to prevent content appearing on Pinterest in advance.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how content owners (or gatekeepers like Blipfoto) respond to the right to opt-out. If enough sites opt out, then Pinterest may be forced to re-engineer its site to link through to the original image.*

*Even this may still cause problems with Blipfoto. Blipfoto’s terms of use state that

You are not permitted to hotlink (or “inline” or “direct” link) to our site’s files, for example by using an <img> tag to display a JPEG image on our site in such a way that it will appear on another site.

Quite how this squares with Facebook sharing (which does exactly this) is unclear. [Updated 23/2/12 @ 17:40: see comments below for clarification from Blipfoto on Facebook sharing.Thanks to Joe for the comment.]

3 Responses to “Pinterest and copyright infringement”


  1. 1 martinsloan February 29, 2012 at 10:46 am

    I also recommend reading this article, pointing out some of the legal risks from the user’s perspective.

    As with most user-generated content sites, the user is responsible for ensuring that it has permission to upload/share the content, and indemnifies Pinterest in the event of any infringement claim.

    http://ddkportraits.com/2012/02/why-i-tearfully-deleted-my-pinterest-inspiration-boards/

    I wonder whether the courts would hold that clause as being enforceable, given that most users appear not to fully understand what actually happens when you pin something on Pinterest (compare this with uploiading a video to Youtube or a photo to Flickr).

  2. 2 Joe Tree February 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Hi Martin – thanks for picking up on this.

    A quick clarification on your final point about Blip’s Terms of Use: Facebook, Google image search and others don’t display Blipfoto images inline in this way – they create their own low-res preview thumbnail, stored on their servers, which always link back to the source entry on Blipfoto.

    In Google’s case, they’re meticulous about refreshing those thumbnails, so if the image is deleted from Blipfoto.com, sooner or later it’s deleted from Google too.

    That’s a long-established principle which has already been fought out in the US courts. It doesn’t cause the concerns Pinterest’s approach does because the original data isn’t copied in a usable form, and leaves control in the hands of the originator.


  1. 1 To be or not to be … « Digital Literacy @ University of Worcester Trackback on February 23, 2012 at 8:30 pm

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