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Pinterest’s Terms of Service, Word by Terrifying Word

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Pinterest is surely a rising star. For those of you not in the know, it’s the online equivalent of a bulletin board – a slicker, cleaner way to put together collages of your favorite styles, photographs, design ideas, or dino art. But lately, Pinterest’s terms of service have been garnering a lot of criticism for stating in no uncertain terms that anything you “pin” to their site belongs to them. Completely. Wholly. Forever and for always. Here’s the offending paragraph:

By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to Cold Brew Labs 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.

My co-blogger, Glendon, has expounded on why the word “sell” in their terms of service unsettles him. I think there are many, many equally ominous words in that paragraph. Here’s what scares me and why:

“IRREVOCABLE”
Let’s just assume for a moment that Pinterest users are posting their own content and not infringing upon others’ copyright (that’s a BIG assumption, btw. From Pinterest’s about page: “Pinterest allows you to organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web… People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and share their favorite recipes.” Last I checked, everything in my home, in my wedding, and… wait for it… on the web were not created by me.) An irrevocable license means the images that you have posted cannot ever be unposted. You had copyright to the images (of course), you read their TOS (yeah, yeah, yeah), and you decided to share your rights with Pinterest. You can’t change your mind. You can’t take it back. It’s irrevocable.

“PERPETUAL”
Did I mention you can never take it back? Never.

“TRANSFERABLE”
Pinterest states in its FAQs that they’re not currently making money but that they are building value for investors and themselves. From their lips to your eyeballs:

Right now, we are focused on growing Pinterest and making it more valuable. To fund these efforts, we have taken outside investment from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

While much of the buzz surrounding Pinterest’s value has centered around their ability to monetize the referral traffic which currently exceeds that from Twitter, I have a different perspective. What I see Pinterest doing is employing you (without pay, mind you) to amass a giant library of original content for them. I may be wrong, but I suspect this library is the hedge against the referral model working out. And you can bet that if their library gets big enough, they will have some pretty serious offers from some major players. And guess which word in their TOS will allow the buyer to transfer that valuable library from Pinterest to the next company? You got it: “transferable.” That’s value for shareholders and investors. Not for you.

“ROYALTY-FREE”
What was I saying about value for investors and not you? “Royalty-free” officially cuts you out of the equation.

aaannnnnd, the Laundry List: “SUBLICENSE, USE, COPY, ADAPT, MODIFY, DISTRIBUTE, LICENSE, SELL, TRANSFER, PUBLICLY DISPLAY, PUBLICLY PERFORM, TRANSMIT, STREAM, BROADCAST, ACCESS, VIEW, AND OTHERWISE EXPLOIT”
Licensing, distributing, selling, performing. These are all ways that people make money off of creative content. I am an artist. I paint a perty picture. You buy it from me for $500. Hey, that’s pretty good, right? Say I spent 40 hours on that painting – at $500 sale price, that’s $12.50/hr or $26,000/year if I can keep creating and selling one painting a week for a year. $26,000/year minus housing, healthcare (most artists are self-employed), daycare, insurance, food, etc. doesn’t leave much wiggle room.

Lucky for me, when you buy that painting, you own the original, but I retain all other rights. So if I want to sell prints or mugs or t-shirts, I can. I can also license the image to a book or magazine or General Mills if I want, to plaster on their cereal boxes. There are a number of ways I can use my creative content to ensure that I make a living wage. If I rely on the sales of my original paintings I may only make $26K a year, but if I can sell that image 20 more times as a $50 print, all of a sudden my hourly is $37.50 with a projected annual earning of $78,000. That seemingly innocent laundry list of “sell” terms is the difference between starving artist and confident, successful creative. Value what you produce, people. What you produce has value.

Now before you get all antsy-pantsy and tell me that I’m a bitter old artist who hates the internet and just “doesn’t get it,” let me be the first (tenth? thousandth?) person to say that Pinterest has great potential. There is value in having your work picked up and promoted by thousands of adoring internet fans. But as a creative, Pinterest’s terms of service don’t mirror the intentions of users who pin out of a desire to support creatives they have “discovered.” If I enter into a binding legal agreement with Pinterest over the use of my images, I want to know exactly how they plan to monetize them and how the use of my work will ultimately benefit and support me and my dependents. Pinterest, on the other hand, wants to claim as many rights as they can and be as vague as possible about how they might use them in the future, because frankly, they don’t know how they might use them. They are an evolving company and will go where the market takes them. Just make no mistake – any billion-dollar deal they enter into will not line your pockets. Unless you’re an investor.

Incidentally, to their credit Pinterest provides a bit of code you can use in the head tag of your webpage that will theoretically prevent users from pinning your stuff (I say “theoretically” because it’s difficult to test if you don’t have a Pinterest account). Since it’s a bit buried in their site, I’m providing it here, although if you’d prefer to get it from the source, by all means (go to About > Help > Getting Started):

What if I don’t want images from my site to be pinned?
We have a small piece of code you can add to the head of any page on your site:

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

When a user tries to pin from your site, they will see this message:
“This site doesn’t allow pinning to Pinterest. Please contact the owner with any questions. Thanks for visiting!”

For another point of view on Pinterest’s Terms of Service see my co-blogger Glendon Mellow’s Symbiartic post, “The Promise and Perils of Pinterest

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at www.kalliopimonoyios.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Glendon Mellow 4:20 pm 03/19/2012

    Great thoughts Kalliopi – a lot for me to think about here.

    Hrm. I wonder how much better it would have been if Pinterest had instead made a bit of code you actively add to your site so people may pin things, rather than opting out.

    Link to this
  2. 2. TikiCosmonaut 5:05 pm 03/19/2012

    Yes, thanks for these articles. I’ve taken what I feel is the next logical step, and removed my account.

    Which is sad, because I thought Pinterest was pretty cool in all other respects.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tonylinde 5:26 pm 03/19/2012

    Isn’t there some legalese I can post on site that permits people to pin images I own but only directly from my site and in a way which restricts Pinterest from exploiting them, regardless of their own terms?

    Link to this
  4. 4. LaughingMantis 6:20 pm 03/19/2012

    I deleted my account and “nopinned” my website, at least until something changes. Thanks so much, Kalliopi and Glendon, for bringing this to the attention of artists like me.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 6:20 pm 03/19/2012

    @tonylinde – Let me know when you find that legalese and if there’s a pot of gold and rainbow next to it. ;-)

    Link to this
  6. 6. Symbiartic.km 11:56 pm 03/19/2012

    @TikiCosmonaut – I agree. Pinterest has some serious appeal, but until they change their TOS, that appeal is only skin deep.

    @tonylinde & @Glendon- Great ideas, both. If only! Maybe if we keep pounding the pavement, they’ll change something so it’s more appealing to creatives.

    @LaughingMantis – so glad we could help!

    Link to this
  7. 7. londoneer 7:01 am 03/20/2012

    It’s a trivial task to get around the ‘no-pin’ rule.

    What happens when a user of the service ‘pins’ something in these circumstances (thus breaking any attribution links), and the owner of the original image then attempts to wrest control back from Pinterest? The work of some very big names in professional photography is reproduced on the Pinterest site – I see some complex legal battles in their future…

    Link to this
  8. 8. swansont 1:50 pm 03/20/2012

    “When the product is free, you’re not the customer. You are the product.”

    Link to this
  9. 9. Johnay 8:18 pm 03/20/2012

    Their policy breaks down when the pinner pins something they don’t have IP rights to.

    Of course then their policy pins it on the pinner. Would be interesting to see how that would hold up in court. Selling or otherwise exploiting an image would be, ultimately, their choice, I think, and to do so just on the basis of some random pin by someone who probably never read the policy is not due diligence IMHO. At least I would consider it foolish.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Laura Weed 8:11 pm 03/22/2012

    A. I notice we can pin from this site.
    B. What most people are pinning or repinning doesn’t belong to them anyway. Even though the TOS on Pinterest says the pinner is claiming ownership.
    C. You could hide under the couch and worry about identity theft if you want as well.
    D. If you’re putting it on the internet, it’s public. Make your mark and move on. Get working on the NEXT thing to make money from, stop worrying about what’s already out there. In today’s environment, what you’ve already posted is SOOOO yesterday. It’s a different world now. The people who make the next new thing and market it well will win. The people who obsess over who stole from them, they will lose, and be sad doing it.

    Link to this
  11. 11. cyclicamp 11:14 pm 03/22/2012

    By the way, here is part of the terms of use from scientificamerican.com:

    “If you do submit material, and unless we indicate otherwise, you grant Scientific American and its affiliates a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, display and perform such content throughout the world in any media now known or hereafter invented. You grant Scientific American and its affiliates the right to use the name you submit in connection with such content, if they so choose. You will retain any ownership rights you may have in the materials you submit, subject to the licenses granted to Scientific American in these Terms of Use. You also understand and agree that users of this site who may access the content you submit are granted a non-exclusive license to access, use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform your content.”

    Explicitly stating that the user retains the ownership rights is good, and it is a major difference compared to Pinterest. But the author and everyone commenting here clicked on the little checkbox saying they read this part when they made an account…so doesn’t this just come off a bit like picking on Pinterest just because it’s a “rising star”?

    Link to this
  12. 12. Glendon Mellow 1:26 am 03/23/2012

    Cyclicamp, you raise an interesting point.

    In the days since Kalliopi and I each wrote out pieces about Pinterest (with minimal cross-talk or planning) I’ve repeatedly on Twitter, G+ and elsewhere heard statements to the effect of “Pinterest’s ToS is the same as everything else on the internet, whatevs”. It’s one of the reasons I focused so much on the “sell or otherwise exploit” portions of their terms.

    DeviantArt doesn’t have that. Blogger doesn’t have that. Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter don’t have that. So no, I don’t feel like it’s picking on Pinterest. Should we just roll over and not complain when an interesting and useful social media site has something screwy in their Terms? Or should we say something and hope to add our voice to the others out there expecting change?

    Link to this
  13. 13. cyclicamp 6:14 pm 03/23/2012

    Glendon,

    I agree the “sell” part is a major sticking point, especially with regard to the way the company is overtly setting up to sell the content. I could have been clearer, but my comment was pretty long already (through no fault of my own! Dang legalese…). It was meant more in the context of this article, which focuses more on the nature of the license and the degree of freedom it affords the company over the user.

    You can draw the line at selling. But many of the sites you listed still afford themselves the right to monetize your content in a way that is not explicitly granted by the user, and is not necessarily in the interest of the user but of the company. Many of these licenses are some combination of irrevocable, transferable, perpetual, or royalty-free. Facebook is surprisingly vague about IP posted to the site, giving them a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post.” “Use” is not defined. Facebook also famously uses user posts in advertisements. They’re better about this recently, but specific instances are still done without user knowledge. Twitter and Blogger’s terms are structured to allow this re-purposing route if they chose as well. For instance, “Twitter partners” are allowed to reproduce your tweets without explicit permission (think “viewer reaction” during a sports/news broadcast as a current example). DeviantArt and Tumblr are currently good exceptions, as they explicitly state that they reserve the rights claimed on user work for the sole function of making that content available on their respective services.

    I do believe both of the articles on this blog are valuable in making things change. But I still believe most of what was discussed in this article is widespread, and it could easily be titled “Social Media Terms of Service, Word by Terrifying Word.” And I thought it was akin to a police officer pulling over the 20th car he sees speeding on the highway, instead of the first.

    That said, if this instance is the one that makes everyone pay attention to what they are signing over, that’s fine. Not one thing wrong with that.

    As a final note, I was wrong in my previous post about Pinterest being different about claiming ownership. Pinterest explicitly states that it does not claim ownership to member content, the same as SA.

    Link to this
  14. 14. jesskupferman 10:43 pm 03/23/2012

    Pinterest is not in the image-selling business. The fact that this is in their terms is nothing but a reason for everyone to be up in arms about it. Case in point: Here are Tumblr TOS – “When you transfer Subscriber Content to Tumblr through the Services, you give Tumblr a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable right and license to use, host, store, cache, reproduce, publish, display (publicly or otherwise), perform (publicly or otherwise), distribute, transmit, modify, adapt (including, without limitation, in order to conform it to the requirements of any networks, devices, services, or media through which the Services are available), and create derivative works of (including, without limitation, by Reblogging, as defined below), such Subscriber Content. ”

    It may not say SELL, but it does say reproduce. And distribute. And transmit. And modify. With Pinterest, it is NO DIFFERENT. They can do what they want with the content. Not agreeing to terms like these means you don’t get to use neat stuff on the Internet.

    Pinterest is now sending more traffic to websites than Twitter. More than YouTube, Google+ and LinkedIn COMBINED. That alone is a reason to suck it up and pin away. Staying away and saying “not me” is being out of the loop, and when it comes to Internet business, there’s never a good excuse for that.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Glendon Mellow 12:31 am 03/24/2012

    jesskupferman, I generally agree with your last paragraph.

    For me, “sell” is the sticking point. Reproducing, distributing, modifying, transmitting, adapting and to some extent, derivative works are all necessary in part due to the amount of different devices users expect to be able to see their work on, and have it formatted. When I post on Blogger, it adapts the images and post content differently when I use it on my phone.

    But selling is very different. Or sorry, to borrow your caps, VERY DIFFERENT. Saying “Pinterest is not in the image-selling business” was nonsense while it was expressly written into their Terms of Service.

    As of the time I’m commenting, you’ll note they’ve now removed the “sell” – because they aren’t in the image selling business. But kicking up a fuss is one way to ensure that they mean it, rather than just trust and ignoring that it’s in there.
    http://blog.pinterest.com/post/19799177970/pinterest-updated-terms

    Link to this
  16. 16. avflox 5:02 pm 03/24/2012

    I wonder how much your posts had to do with their decision to change their tune. Forbes seems to think this is the post that broke the camel’s back: http://www.forbes.com/sites/limyunghui/2012/03/24/pinterest-revises-its-terrifying-terms-of-service-soon-to-release-private-pinboards-and-api/

    Way to go. And excellent piece.

    Link to this
  17. 17. tinagleisner 7:25 pm 03/25/2012

    Kalliopi, Your article was well written and I do hope we’re able to reach a reasonable compromise but I certainly have held off jumping in very deep until I could sort things out. I did find it funny that after so much feeling, you have not “nopinned” your site.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Glendon Mellow 10:47 am 03/26/2012

    tinagleisner, one of the problems imo with Pinterest coming up with code to have a no-pinned site, is that it’s not always an option. I can’t add that type of html to my deviantART portfolio; I can’t add it to my Facebook fan page; I can’t add it to Etsy. Some platforms don’t allow for that type of customization, and there’s nothing stopping someone from pinning from a Google Image Search.

    I think it would have been better if Pinterest had created code to opt-in. Slower for their growth though.

    Link to this
  19. 19. ablestmage 8:04 pm 03/26/2012

    I think you forgot the crucial “NON-EXCLUSIVE” which means, contradictory to your first paragraph, “not wholly” in that you keep everything you already own, but that you’re allowing Pinterest to ALSO use it.

    Also, the “Content” that you’re submitting is not the “work” itself, such as the actual physical object. The “Content” is the thumbnail and the little description and pinboard chosen to represent the link to your own site, not the site and site information itself. It’s more or less like a photo of a house for sale that you send to a newspaper. You’re selling what’s in the photo, and the newspaper is, by your permission, granted the right to sell the newspaper that contains the photo you submitted — not the house itself. You can still sell the photo yourself if you want. It’s NON-EXCLUSIVE.

    Link to this
  20. 20. pizawl 12:26 am 03/29/2012

    Facebook has a similar clause in their Terms of Service, they can re-use any image you post on their site without asking or even telling you. Not many people read the Terms of Service, but if you’re an artist trying to come up in the game and learning about licensing agreements, it’s always good practice to do so. An I do mean practice, if you intend to make a living as an artist you will go through the legalese of licensing and copyrights many times.

    There was at least one incident that I know of where an individual was taking many images from Deviant Art accounts and selling prints he had made from the images. While I abhor such an individual, you have to wonder what the artists were thinking when they posted images at high enough resolution to make prints off of (clearly they weren’t aware that screen res is 72 ppi), or why they didn’t watermark the images. The thief was bogus, but the artists didn’t take the proper steps to protect their work. Live and learn.

    Link to this
  21. 21. pcpcpcpc 5:18 am 04/28/2012

    Pinterest’s rights under the Terms of Service are only useable in the course of running the website. The rights to re-distribute and sub-licence sound expansive, but they are the necessary bare minimum to simply display your content on their website.

    In the old TOS (29 March 2011), the wording was “only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services.” In the new TOS (6 April 2012) it is “for the purposes of operating and providing the Service(s) to you and to our other Users.”

    The right has to be transferrable, in case the website changes hands.

    Making the licence perpetual and irrevocable is possibly a bit far. Arguably it would be fairer to let users delete their account and thereby revoke Pinterest’s right to display what they posted.

    Link to this
  22. 22. pcpcpcpc 5:27 am 04/28/2012

    You can’t write any legalese that would — under the 6 April 2012 Terms of Service — grant anyone the right to pin your website without giving Pinterest all the rights they demand in their TOS. You would need Pinterest to offer two sets of terms for users to licence pins to them: one where Pinterest can do what it likes, and one where Pinterest isn’t allowed to charge. If Pinterest did that, then you could build that into your own terms of service to regulate how users pin your content.

    Link to this

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