The Pointless Copyright Freakout Over Pinterest

from the same-old-song dept

I’ve been debating whether or not it’s worth doing this post for a few weeks now, but with so much sudden interest in Pinterest and how it fits in the copyright scheme of things, people keep asking “when,” not “if,” we were going to write about it, so we might as well tackle it. If you don’t know, Pinterest is an insanely popular social network of sorts, built around the concept of “pinning” images you like, creating collections of such images and sharing them with your friends. It’s been the buzz of Silicon Valley for quite some time, and hit the mainstream in a big way a few weeks ago. Lots of commentators like to point out that it’s widely used by women — because that’s apparently noteworthy in contrast to the typical internet buzzy services that get the usual “early adopters” who tend to be more of the male persuasion. Either way, it’s crazy popular. I first heard about it in the context of teenagers sharing “looks” — creating effective collages of images of clothing/style/accessories and sharing them with friends in a “wouldn’t this look nice” kind of way.

But, as Pinterest hit some sort of inflection point right around the Super Bowl (with the help of Facebook integration), a bunch of people started noticing that there were some significant copyright questions involved. After all, the basic way it works is you make use of images you find online and “pin” them into a collection. But if you don’t have the rights to use those images, is it infringement? Some are pretty sure that it violates the law in that it wasn’t clear it would really qualify for fair use — and there were also some questions about how thoroughly it complied with DMCA takedown requests. Either way, the issue began to explode with a ton of articles all discussing the copyright questions.

As this suddenly got so much more attention, Pinterest just rolled out a “nopin” meta tag, which allows website owners to basically block images from a site from being easily “pinned” to a Pinterest collection. Depending on who you listen to, this either answered all the copyright questions or merely represented a “small step” towards dealing with them. For angry photographers, I’d bet they’re going to claim the latter is more accurate, if they’ll even grant that much.

There’s also a separate, but related, issue concerning Pinterest’s terms of service that includes some boilerplate language that pretty much every online service includes and when someone reads them for the first time, they freak out about how Pinterest is claiming too many rights over the uploaded works. This is an exaggeration — and we’ve seen the same thing happen with TwitPic and others, where the terms are there to make sure you’re granting the site an effective license to display the works, and not as some nefarious plan to claim ownership of the works.

Either way, the community that’s been most vocal about Pinterest and how it’s something evil are photographers. While there are plenty of photographers who are quite reasonable on copyright issues, for some reason, it seems like photographers often can be the most extreme on copyright issues, and it’s no different here.

However, it seems like (as the music industry did with Napster, and now the movie industry has done with cyberlockers), they’re getting the wrong message out of what’s happening online: these services are opportunities, not threats. If you want to understand why, I recommend reading (thoroughly) a recent blog post by photographer Trey Ratcliff, who goes into great detail not just about how Pinterest has been really useful for him (including in driving revenue), but that photographers need to stop treating everything as a threat, and start looking at these things as opportunities. Again, you should read the whole thing, but here are a few useful snippets. Ratcliff points out that treating everything as a threat means that you spend all your time trying to angrily shut stuff down, rather than getting your work out there. But there are real advantages to getting your work out there (and he explains why it should be high res, and without watermarks, contrary to the standard way that many photographers do thumbnails with annoying watermarks):

Most people in the world are good people. If they find digital art they want to buy for a print or use in a commercial campaign, they will figure out a way to get you money. 99% of your traffic is truly “window-shoppers.” They will look at your goods, take note, enjoy them and move on. But 1% will want to make a personal or business transaction with you….

[….] has healthy traffic that grows every year thanks to good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. We don’t advertise or buy links or any of that stuff. So I depend on the Internet and nice people like you to link back to the site and tell your friends that you find something unique and cool.

Last month, we had 714,143 Pageviews and 234,107 unique visitors. 15% of this traffic came from Pinterest. Amazing! If Pinterest didn’t exist (a reality some photographers would prefer), then our traffic would be 15% less. Choosing to switch-off innovation is a fool’s errand, especially in today’s world. It reminds me of the scene in Anthem where the council of candle-makers becomes rather upset at the invention of the light bulb.


Someone on Pinterest can make a board called “Feeling a bit blue,” and they can fill it with cool-colored melancholy photos. Isn’t this just another way of making a poem? If I built up this pinboard and sent it to a friend, it’s nothing but a visual poem in a new medium. It’s just as powerful, and, in many ways, more accessible.

Pinterest is simply another way (a newer, evolving way, mind you) for humans to communicate with one another. It is increasingly the job of digital artists to inspire, share and bring more beauty and communication into the world.

There really is a lot more there, and it’s worth reading the whole thing. Also, Ratcliff appears to be an absolutely awesome photographer, so I recommend checking out his work too.

Either way, his point is a strong one, and it’s really no different than what many people have made to reactionary folks in other parts of the content industry. You can spend all your time trying to kill innovation or stop people from doing what they want to do… or you can bask in the wonderment that people want to do stuff, encourage them to do so, and make it easier for them to help spread your works… all the while making it easy for them to support you. Ratcliff seems to be a perfect example of our discussion on the benefits of being open, human and awesome.

And, in the end, that’s the key point. Whether or not Pinterest is a copyright landmine is kind of besides the point. It’s a really fascinating innovation that is having massive (unprecedented) success in terms of users. Clearly, it’s tapped into a market by providing something that a very large number of people absolutely love. When that happens, there are always opportunities, and smart photographers should be focused on finding and embracing those opportunities.

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Comments on “The Pointless Copyright Freakout Over Pinterest”

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Suja (profile) says:

That’s the problem with the art/idea world today.

Instead of putting energy on enjoying/improving/creating ideas it is wasted on fear, compliance & worry over copyrights… I mean, censorrights.

Censorrights are like a vampire gnawing at the neck of creativity, it doesn’t give a fuck about anything other than extracting as much blood as possible at the expense of others.

Yet, people still put it as being more important than the art/idea/whatever itself, that to me is just sad.

It’s like taking your effort & energy and just flushing them down the toilet.

Sadder still are those who would give in to their demands under the impression that anything less than full servitude would mean utter disaster, in turn they give power to the demon that sucks them dry.

MAFIAA/censorright don’t have any power if we don’t give it them, time to wake up people. Stand up for your rights.

(I’m tempted to make a whole bunch of bad puns involving stakes, garlic & light but I will refrain from doing so…)

Suja (profile) says:

"Pinterest is an insanely popular social network of sorts"

Lol’d at the first one, I’m so sick of “what my friends are doing” sites, I’ll ask them if I want to know, thanks.

I want a site that lets me sift through crap with actual filters based on likes & a search system that works on the same principles instead of by rankings/views.

Make that double for finding people with the same interests, that’s the site I want to see.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

"Pinterest is an insanely popular social network of sorts"

Now that comic’s been bookmarked, pirated, spread widely across the world and generally abused by RIAA and MPAA standards just cause it is sooooooooooooooooooooooo true!

Now that’s out of my system I think I’ll go peek at the site Mike’s writing about just to see what the heck all the fuss is about.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

It’s an interesting little place, kind of social networking lol cats and other pictures. If someone put my picture up there I’d be pleased as long as I got credit for it so that if someone likes it they can either buy a copy from me or have me do some work for them.

The reaction of some photographers does see more fearful than helpful to them though I’d argue that it’s more helpful in just getting the work out in a fun and human environment. And makes it more accessible to those who may not see or think of buying a copy of it.

There are times, you know, when you ignore your copyright for greater profit down the line.

Maximuscatus (user link) says:


Wholeheartedly agree with this article and Ratcliffs’ post.
Anything pinned on Pinterest from a website is hyperlinked back to its source page, hence the pins are in effect pictorial hyperlinks back to the original site. If I intend to repin something on Pinterst, I go back to the source page and if it is a picture that is a stock image or has specific copyright or attribution rights I don’t repin it or comply with the specifics. I have also pinned my own photos and have seen them constantly reused by others. Just like Ratcliff I have noticed a rise in the visits to my website and blogsite. Thank you Pinterest.

Anonymous Coward says:


Nice use of nasty words and images. But let’s fix it up for you:

“Instead of putting energy on creating ideas and enjoying them, the griftpires gnawing at the neck of creativity, it doesn’t give a fuck about anything other than extracting as much blood as possible at the expense of others.”

You almost got it right the first time.

MrWilson says:


I don’t get the impression that you’re an artist.

Audiences cannot be leeches of creativity. There are three things involved in the creation of art. There’s the artist, there’s their creativity, and there’s the culture into which that artist was born, from which that artist takes elements and reshapes them into his/her own expressions.

Art is not created expressly for money. If it is, it isn’t art. Making money off of it is good. It’s great that some artists can make a living off of their art, but it’s not guaranteed, even if they’re popular. But artists, often known as “starving artists,” create because they have something to express. Art is a drive and actual artists would create art even if they weren’t getting paid for it. Yes, they might not make as much of it or have access to expensive tools and materials if they don’t make much off of it, but they’d still create. Being an artist is a natural characteristic. It’s not an occupation.

Art is also communication. If you don’t want to be pirated, don’t publish your art. But that also means that your art is just a conversation with yourself if no one sees it. The analogue hole means that if it can be seen, heard, experienced, etc., then it can be copied (for the most part). This isn’t to justify piracy. This is just to state the fact that it is physically impossible to stop piracy without destroying the purpose of the art.

But of course a copyright-mongering industry middleman who doesn’t actually create anything other than business deals wouldn’t understand art or culture, only profit and exploitation of customers and artists alike.

EjeG says:


One thing this article forgets to mention is Trey sure he got some awesome photos and believe in share a like on his pictures and to drive traffic to his site.. Ever wonder why?

He is selling his HDR tutorial for $86-97, a texture tutorial for $99-$399 (or $119-$419 if you want them on DVD), he got tons of reviews written of things with helpful (commission based) links to sites where you can buy the hardware.

He is selling a bunch of Iphone / Ipad applications teasers are free but you want the good stuff they are $0.99 to $4.99.

Also sell a few Android apps as well.

The “theft” of a image is the cost of doing business to him. He wants you to come to the site and buy his videos and his apps and go buy the gear he reviewed or used to make that cool video so he can get commission for the sale.

Further he is vocal about things like this because it’s great because he can thump his chest and blow the horn and get more people writing about him and going to his site. It’s just good business practice. I’m fairly certain he would be pretty upset if someone would float his tutorials for free online on a public location and provide a way to get the applications for free to the Iphone/Ipad/Android devices.

He made a great name for himself and he is a good photographer but he is even a better marketing machine. Unfortunately most photographers are not as good marketing machines as him or just don’t have his insight or the financing/time or maybe just not the drive to create this extra side business but some of this side business only works because he is a “big known name”. So absolutely it works for him. Does it work for everyone? Nope, because if all photographers came out with apps and all other stuff he is doing most wouldn’t make enough money to stay in business.

Apps and tutorials is the new way to make money like writing a book used to be (remember those glossy things with pretty pictures that actually came on real paper).

The referral link stuff is a fairly old thing, one of the reasons most people write reviews (unless they are a magazine, who sell ads – no they don’t make money from the subscribers, that $5 for printed mag is to cover distribution/shipping costs, they make their money on the ads and the more subscribers the mag has the more they can charge for their ads). Same thing with the link referral the more referrals and conversions they return the more you will get paid for them so the more reviews the better 😉

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

My art is my heart and soul, I toiled so very hard to make it just right. How DARE you come and show more people what it is I spend my time doing without making sure I get something in my pocket for it!
My art is meant to only be shown after I have gotten enough coins, and worked very hard to be discovered. It is TOTALLY unfair that someone else might get the fame I deserve because some bored housewife, with no art degree, decides their picture is cool and wants to share it with others!
How DARE YOU let common people decide what they like, and share it with others!

orljustin says:


Absolutely, absolutely. You can’t hold up Ratcliff, because his entire busy revolves around getting eyeballs to his site to buy his accessories, and that isn’t what 99% of the rest of photographers are doing. The more noise he makes or attention he gets, the better off.

Also, to the above “Anything pinned on Pinterest from a website is hyperlinked back to its source page,”, we all know that most of the content on twitter is stolen from sources that aren’t original, and so, there is no benefit from the linking. It doesn’t take long to figure that out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not any benefit?

“Also, to the above “Anything pinned on Pinterest from a website is hyperlinked back to its source page,”, we all know that most of the content on twitter is stolen from sources that aren’t original, and so, there is no benefit from the linking.”

Okay, I can understand why someone might prefer visitors to view a photo in its original context on the artists page, but isn’t it better they should view it secondhand on something like pinterest rather than not view it at all? And I don’t understand why you say a hyperlink is not useful -companies compete for link backs, of course they are valuable.

It seems if someone has put their art up on the web they are inviting people to view it. How is this fundamentally different from a search engine.

It seems to me that even more value could be added for the artists if the images were tagged with additional metadata (photographer credit for instance) in addition to the hyperlink. Maybe this would assuage some of the naysayers.

Call me Al says:


“but some of this side business only works because he is a “big known name”.”

That sounds similar to the music industry “it only works because they are already famous” line.

The strength of Pinterest here seems to be that it can drive traffic which in turn may drive interest in the original photographer and so help them to become a big known name in time… obviously together with other items.

Though if that isn’t their goal (which is probably quite likely), or their strengths don’t lie in the side business side of things then I can see how this would not necessarily be of benefit to them.

Michael says:

Problem solved

If you, the creative person, are so terrified about your work being disseminated amongst the general public, I have the perfect solution: don’t release your work for public consumption. See? That was easy. Now you’ll never have to worry about anyone knowing who you are nor what you’ve created. You can spend the rest of your days as an unknown recluse with peace of mind knowing that your work remains solely in your possession.

Anonymous Coward says:


Unlicensed or not, it was quite nice to immediately find a line art version of a photo I long ago uploaded to a free stock photo site. Photography is not my avocation. However, many years ago I decided that it would be useful to let others have totally free rein with photos I have taken over the course of almost 40 years than to simply have them sitting on a closet shelf gathering dust.

It is gratifying to know that my decision has been very well received by the user community for both personal and commercial purposes.

MrWilson says:


“It would appear to be a pure unlicensed content grab.”

Or, you know, it’s the digital equivalent of someone clipping pictures from magazines to put on a wall and then showing it off to other people. This is a form of appreciation.

Again, if you don’t want people to like or see your art, don’t publish it. Or else only release really small digital versions with hideous watermarks.

Erik says:


Being a graphic designer, I thought id throw my 2 cents in.
If you put your work online, you put it there for people to see it… if more and more people share it and it goes viral be proud.

problem comes in when blogs DO use others peoples work and do not even take the time to post the link(source) where they got it from.. that is messed up.. not just for the creator but for the user that comes across your site..

I want more from the person who made this… click!! “wtf is wrong with you why don’t you post a link?!?” is usually my question at these bloggers.

Its all basic knowledge of owning something, if you don’t own it simply say who does. E-D-U-C-A-T-E your users!!

Melissa Marro (user link) says:


The ignorance in comments is overwhelming. The BIG issue is that full sized images are downloaded to Pinterest. Google won it’s legal case because they only used thumbnails. The use of full sized photographs is clear copyright infringement, particularly when you add the fact that “right click protected” sites can still be pinned as can sites that are labeled “private”.

It is not anyone’s job, except the copyright holder’s, to determine use. While for many people Pinterest is a great marketing tool & has dramticaly increased business, that doesn’t give permission to STEAL someone else’s work… Even under the guise that it’s helping them out by getting them exposure. Let the owner of the photo determine use.

Anonymous Coward says:

If I take a bunch of pictures and make a collage I can share them with whoever I want, non-commercially. Since my collage is on the web the company that makes the poster board my collage is on is in violation of copyright law?

They keep wanting the physical and digital world to have similar laws. But then they want to take all kinds of shit i can do in the physical world and make it illegal online.

Lindsay (profile) says:

Years later...

I am not a Pinterest user, but made a profile years ago to be able to see images that came up in google searches. It seems to have gotten much worse than it used to be, ie there is no way to find the original author of images. I don’t know specifics of fair use or copyright law, but this is fundamentally a disservice to users on both sides (content creators and consumers). I don’t understand the comparison to google images at all, what with links to where the images originated versus hosting on their own servers. Pinterest has the ability to inherently link to original content versus downloading content but chooses not to. Sometimes the only way to find the original image is to upload image to google and match it to others on the web. I understand that pinterest puts in on to users to cite origin of image, but why when it could quite easily include that info as well in its ui? Searching images and running into pinterest dead ends has become the bane of my internets. // end rant

Roneypro (profile) says:

12 Tips to Optimize Your Pins for Search

A strong Pinterest SEO strategy is one of the best ways to increase your reach and drive more sales.

In fact, SEO on Pinterest is arguably more important than on any other social media platform.

That’s because Pinterest is a powerful visual discovery engine — where content lives on and gets surfaced resurfaced over and over again — for months, not minutes.

In this blog post we’re covering how you can use SEO to grow your brand’s presence on Pinterest, target relevant audiences, and drive clicks and sales for your business:

Why You Should Think of Pinterest as a Search Engine
Pinterest isn’t a social network — it’s a visual discovery engine, and one of the main destinations people visit to find new ideas and inspiration.

When a Pinner goes to scroll new content on the platform, they land on their Home Feed. The Home Feed shows Pins based on what you’ve previously searched and saved!

Since Pinterest is primarily built for search and discovery, your content gets a much longer shelf-life than it would on other platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

It’s important to think of the platform as more than just a social channel.

This is where your search-engine optimization strategy comes into play.

By following the 12 tips below, you will take your Pinterest SEO to the next level and drive so much more value for your brand!

Set Up Your Profile for Success
Craft the Perfect Bio
Get Verified
Follow Other Accounts to Boost Your Visibility
Publish Video Pins
Make Your Boards Searchable
Create Captivating, Original Content
Set up Pins with the Best Ratios
Write Strategic Pin Descriptions
Use Rich Pins
Get into the Pinterest Ad Game
Be Consistent

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