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Symbiartic

Symbiartic

The art of science and the science of art.

Pinterest's Terms of Service, Word by Terrifying Word

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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"

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

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