Copyright poised to destroy yet another innovative and useful online business: Pinterest

by Stephan Kinsella on February 23, 2012

See Mike Masnick’s Techdirt post below about Pinterest and its potential copyright problems. Other services that copyright has damaged or destroyed or is now threatening: Napster;  Wikileaks; 3D-printing; Grooveshark, MegaUpload and other cloud  storage and file sharing services like Dropbox, YouSendit, YouTube, etc.

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….

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StuckInCustoms.com 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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