The Promise - a bold credited, copyright future

Initially, I was enamored by Pinterest, the image sharing and collecting site. It's like a visual scrapbook of all the things you love online, and does what Tumblr has neglected to do, and requires a link back to the source of each image.

Amazing. A boon for artists, illustrators and photographers, as well as educators. Science educators can organize class images for students to reference, the image makers get a link back to their sites, helping get their names out there and possibly further exposure and perhaps paying gigs.

Win-win all around, right?

Pinterest even goes so far as to credit the two designers who created their two logos (that I have crudely satirized at left) - Juan Carlos Pagan and Michael Deal. This is the type of thing as an illustrator online that I really like: respect and shareability. Pinterest has a lot of vision and wants to give credit where credit is due.

The Problem - why you're using Pinterest wrong

It's likely if you're on Pinterest, you're using it wrong. I did when I started. I was envisioning a Symbiartic Pinterest board, all the images Kalliopi and I have mustered together on our less than 1-year old blog complete with handy links promoting the visionaries that are exploring the intersection of science and art.

But the problem is, I didn't have permission from the artists to show off their work on Pinterest. Kalliopi and I are very careful to ask before posting (one of the reasons we do not post with massive frequency - we have to wait on replies). Perhaps, I thought, I could begin to ask artists when I approach them about a Symbiartic feature if they're willing to go on a Symbiartic Pinterest board as well?

You see, the problem with Pinterest is that right in the Terms of Service, they state you,

"...are the sole and exclusive owner of all Member Content..."

and you,

"agree not to do any of the following: Post, upload, publish, submit, provide access to or transmit any Content that: (i) infringes, misappropriates or violates a third party’s patent, copyright, trademark, trade secret, moral rights or other intellectual property rights..."


So ask yourself: how many images have you posted on Pinterest that you have permission for? How many are available under Creative Commons Licences or expired copyrights? Have you looked? Are you aware that you're on the hook (not Pinterest) if someone is suing for violations?

The explosive popularity of Pinterest has rested on people making boards using boards to plan lessons, gather neat-o foltsam from the internet, design dream homes and wardrobes, share jokes, share inspirations and do it all without asking for permission to post those images.

Now, this isn't the worst thing ever to happen. Most of the internet relies on sharing, mashing, collaborating and the creativity of free information, including images. I'm sure IKEA or Marvel Comics are not too bothered that their wares are pinned on countless Pinterest boards - it's free advertising spreading their brands. Even many illustrators won't mind the extra notoriety and blog traffic they can leverage coming from those handy links-to-the-source Pinterest expects. GeekMom outlines a few ways you can try to adhere to a type of Pinterest etiquette.

But it is interesting that Pinterest's current growth is resting on increasing violations of copyright.

The Peril - what is it Pinterest wants to sell?

Shortly after I posted on my personal blog, The Flying Trilobite about why I liked Pinterest, Kalliopi and a few other illustration colleagues got into a discussion with me (on the blog and G+) about one weird little clause in Pinterest's Terms of Service. Typically, I read these very carefully. I admit, I missed one tiny word this time around.


Pinterest states:

"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." Emphasis mine.


Problematically in the same paragraph, Pinterest states: "Cold Brew Labs does not claim any ownership rights in any such Member Content".

So which is it? Do they claim ownership to the content or not? And what are they planning to sell, anyway? I suspect it's selling the themes and content of the boards to advertisers - let's say they notice an increase in the frequency of boards that feature a new teen pop star, they could potentially sell that information to a record label and make a deal for more advertising. Much like Facebook and Google will do with information culled from online profiles.

Or perhaps, something similar to that Twitpic clause that was quietly changed and allowed Twitpic to sell user's photos to news services without the photographers seeing a dime or even notification. If that's the case though, why isn't Pinterest cracking down more on copyright violations? You'd think if the plan was to sell to affiliates, more diligence in keeping everyone's boards clear of images that could land them in legal hot water would be on the agenda.

So potentially they could be planning a line of coffee table books based on popular board topics ("Inspiring Gardens" from Pinterest Press anyone?). Or maybe t-shirts of hipster cartoons. I dunno. We don't know.

I sent an email and some tweets to Pinterest a month ago asking about these precise issues. Haven't heard anything so far.

So when am I deleting my Pinterest board?

That's right. I still have one. I like to adopt and try out most online services as they roll out to help further my illustration career. You go where the customers and fans are. So for me, it's a case of risk assessment: is it likely Pinterest is going to suddenly sell off a surreal portrait of Darwin or some winged trilobites to some news or marketing affiliate? and make more money from it than I ever have? Or will being on Pinterest drive even more people to my portfolio and sites than ever before? Almost half my online traffic comes from Twitter, so perhaps Pinterest could tip me into sustainability as an artist.

Pinterest is listening, in part because of a high-profile story about a lawyer deleting her boards that was carried by the Wall Street Journal. The lawyer, Kirsten Kowalski, says the Pinterest CE Ben Silbermann and she have had a progressive discussion about it, according to a story posted at the Washington Post online yesterday. But still no word about what "sell" means.

I'm going to ask again, and give them another couple of weeks before I delete my boards. I think.

Edit: They did respond with off-the-record comments. I deleted the content of all my boards.

Related links:

Pinterest gets right what Tumblr got wrong - on The Flying Trilobite by Glendon Mellow

Pinterest Terms of Service: Word by Terrifying Word - here on Symbiartic by Kalliopi Monoyios.

Pinterest Terms of Service Link Round-Up - on The Flying Trilobite by Glendon Mellow.