Pinterest and copyright concerns

The site Pinterest has created a lot of buzz lately, positive and negative. Many have touted the site as a great way to share and promote art and ideas. But many photographers and other content creators are concerned about their content being used on this site without their permission. Summary: In my opinion, by encouraging the sharing of other people's content and by storing and displaying images at a large size, Pinterest promotes the growing sentiment that anything you see on the web should be free for the taking. ETA: Please see also my follow-up post on this issue.

My pinboard

In the positive camp, popular photographer Trey Ratcliff encourages photographers to "stop complaining and embrace Pinterest". He encourages using the site for self-promotion. Here are several issues I have with Trey's arguments, some of which I brought up in an exchange with Thomas Hawk (another very popular photographer who supports Trey's view) in their these threads on Google+.

  • Sharing "freely" is not the main key to popularity and financial success in photography. Marketing savvy and relentless self-promotion are what made Trey and Thomas (who makes a living from his job as a stockbroker, not from photography) as successful as they are, not the fact that they choose to share all of their work full-resolution, non-watermarked, and Creative Commons licensed. See for example full-time travel photographer QT Luong's explanation on why he uses watermarks and does not use Creative Commons, but still shares his images widely.
  • Trey's claim that "A pure artist has two motivations: creation for the sake of creation and sharing for the sake of connecting with the world" may apply to himself, but he certainly does not speak for many other content creators. Working wedding and portrait photographers, and event photographers like myself, have different goals and workflows than those specializing in landscape and nature photography, for example, but even many of those in the latter camp have motivations in addition to those Trey lists; that doesn't make them somehow impure.
  • Pinterest will not necessarily generate more traffic to your photography site, as Trey claims. Pinned images are not thumbnail-sized. When linking to an image on Facebook or Google+, for example, only a small thumbnail is generated, thus encouraging a visit to the originating site. Pinterest pinned images can be up to 600 pixels in width. This might not sound large, but for comparison, the images on my blog entries and event listings are 450-580 pixels wide. You can see plenty of detail, enough that for most casual users there is little incentive to visit the originating page.

    Regardless, Trey stated that 15% of last month's traffic to his blog came from Pinterest, but he also admits that he uses his pinboards for self-promotion; roughly half of his pins are his own images. As pointed out by others in the comments on his blog post, this usage would seem to violate the site's own guidelines, which say not to use it to promote your own work.

Independent of all of the above, the main point is that every photographer has the right to share and promote their images how they see fit. In the United States, copyright is granted the moment you press the shutter. You can choose to release your images under a Creative Commons license, or even into the public domain, but images found on the Internet are not free for the taking by default. This is true whether or not they are watermarked or have metadata stating the copyright owner. Mine usually have both, though I'm very aware how easily that information can be stripped out. That doesn't make unauthorized use OK, however.

In my opinion, sites like Pinterest, by encouraging the sharing of other people's content and by storing and displaying images at a large size, promote the growing sentiment that anything you see on the web should be free for the taking. I am not a lawyer, but I don't believe that Pinterest is necessarily violating copyright themselves, as their Terms of Service are carefully crafted to state that members are only allowed to post content if they have the full rights to it. Doubtless this restriction is ignored by most users, but it covers Pinterest legally. Perhaps. Monetizing the site will likely bring them more legal scrutiny.

Some say that those of us who express concern about unauthorized use of our images should "just not post on the Internet at all". This is silly and dismissive. As of today I have over 25,000 images online in my Zenfolio galleries, most of which are public, and I post hundreds of larger-sized images to Facebook and Google+ on a regular basis. I'm not afraid to show my work widely. But if my identifying information is deliberately removed and I'm not OK with the usage, I will say something.

I don't spend all or even any significant proportion of my time looking for violations either. But I do file most of my photos with the copyright office (the ASMP has an excellent tutorial on this process), so that if it is worth it for me to issue a takedown notice or sue, I can. Trey Ratcliff does this too, by the way (or rather, one of his team members does it for him).

Sean Locke, a successful stock photographer who has expressed concern about Pinterest and copyright violations, has list of some other articles about this subject. These articles have more in-depth analysis of the potential legal issues behind Pinterest's use of copyrighted material.

Our protests may be a lost cause; I feel that we are in an age where the value of anything that can be freely copied is rapidly being lost. The "information wants to be free" attitude has spread to include images, music, and video, without regard to the amount of time and effort required to produce these works.

The question of "what's the harm; you're not losing anything irreplaceable" frequently arises. Well, the harm is not necessarily financial. I have spent the last two years documenting the fight for marriage equality in California. I don't expect to make any profit from this endeavor; I've licensed very few of these photos. But I do want some say in how my content is used. If an anti-gay organization were to lift my photos from Pinterest or another source and use them without my permission, I would complain, whether or not they were for-profit and whether or not they used them with attribution.

Ultimately, some new way of protecting content without resorting to draconian measures like SOPA/PIPA needs to be found. I don't have the answers, but I do know I currently have the legal and moral rights to protect my work.

0 February 19, 2012