Pinterest: Trouble in Pin Paradise Over Photo Copyrights

With 10 million unique visitors a month, Pinterest—the scrapbooking site with an addictive visual interface—is rapidly becoming the most influential social media platform in food. If you haven't used Pinterest, imagine a digital version of tearing out photos from food magazines and pinning them to a kitchen bulletin board for inspiration. Many food blogs and websites (including CHOW.com) now have "Pin It" buttons so it's easy for readers to share the sites' recipe photos on Pinterest, and many of those sites are seeing big increases in referrals (i.e., site visitors) as a result. Trouble is, as with most rapid rises in prominence, Pinterest is feeling some unexpected growing pains, if not the rumblings of a backlash.

First there was Amber N. Bracegirdle's petition. A few weeks ago, the Bluebonnets & Brownies blogger noticed that when her photos were being "pinned" onto boards users created on Pinterest, people were also copying and pasting the entire text of her recipes, too. It was essentially as if entire posts were being republished on another website, even though Pinterest users were almost certainly not consciously stealing her work. Bracegirdle's main fear: getting her site demoted in Google search because it would be deemed duplicate content to Pinterest, a site with way more link-backs and traffic for Google's crawlers to eat up. "Just the potential that my site could be blacklisted by Google was too much of a risk," she says.

UPDATE March 27, 2012
Pinterest tightens the copyright language in its terms of use.

So on February 12, Bracegirdle started a petition on SignOn.org, asking Pinterest to add a character limit to pins so that the entire content of a recipe couldn't be pinned. Within 24 hours, the petition had 500 signatures, mostly from other food bloggers sharing concerns about copyright infringement. Bracegirdle sent it on to Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, and on February 15 the site enacted a 500 character limit on pins. That weekend, Silbermann sent Bracegirdle a thoughtful response, which she posted on her blog.

"I feel satisfied in terms of pin text," says Bracegirdle, "but there are other problems."

Pinterest backlash round two: photo copyright issues. A few days after CHOW.com first spoke to Bracegirdle, she emailed us a link to a blog post at DDK Portraits by a Georgia woman named Kirsten Kowalski, "Why I Tearfully Deleted My Pinterest Inspiration Boards." Kowalski, a photographer and a lawyer, had dug into the Pinterest terms of use, which made her so nervous she deleted a bunch of her collections of pins, called "boards." Kowalski discovered that she was supposed to be responsible for the photos she posted to her Pinterest boards, and was supposed to have all the rights to them. And if she didn't, she—not Pinterest—would be entirely liable for copyright infringement. What's more, the terms state that when you upload a photo to Pinterest, you are granting it a "perpetual" "irrevocable" "royalty-free" license to use your photos on its site and "application or services."

That means the copyright issue is twofold. First, users are nervous that they could get sued for inadvertently violating a copyright. And second, professional photographers in particular are unhappy that they're granting Pinterest licenses to their work. To quote Kowalski's post: "Um. Uh-oh."

Kowalski's story circulated fast on the Web. And just as he did with Bracegirdle, Silbermann contacted Kowalski. But this time, he wanted ideas about how to fix the copyright issues.

"We talked about ways his lawyers (who ARE experts in copyright law) can redraft Pinterest’s Terms of Use to clear up any current confusion regarding how to use the site," Kowalski wrote on her blog. "All in all, it was a great conversation and he assured me that some changes are on the way in the very near future. ... He’s on it,'" she wrote, though she didn't divulge any of the possible fixes.

Meanwhile, Pinterest has created an opt-out code for sites that don't want their images pinned. Flickr, the popular photo-sharing site, has implemented this "no-pin" code to make it easy for its users to opt in or out of having their work shared on Pinterest. And though a lot of food sites (CHOW.com included) might have no intention of chasing down users for pinning their photos, commercial photographers probably have more incentive for not wanting their work to be circulated wholesale.

So what now? Pinterest declined our interview request. But since Pinterest is such an innovative platform for browsing the Web, has a great community, is much adored (even by some of the same folks raising issues over it!), and is driving tons of traffic back to sites that could potentially get upset over copyright issues, it seems like this might be little more than a bump in the road. And given how proactive the company (and in particular Silbermann) has been about soliciting feedback and contacting concerned users, it seems extremely unlikely that Pinterest will go the way of Napster.

Roxanne Webber is the former senior features editor at CHOW.com.