Pinterest’s growth is stabilizing after exploding onto the scene. According to a report from USA Today, the site’s growth slowed from 85 percent in the period between mid-January and mid-February to 18 percent between February and March. The report said the site’s growth seems to be “coming back to earth.”
The site recently made changes to its terms of service to deal with some concerns over the copyright permissions of what users share on their pin boards. To address some of those concerns, Pinterest released new terms of service that brought it more in line with the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. That helps the company, but it’s less clear what will happen if users are sued for posting copyrighted material.
As the company notes, so far, content creators have largely embraced the site, but forward-looking users have started to raise questions about how Pinterest may deal with that question.
Geri Haight, a partner in the IP section of law firm Mintz Levin, talked to The Post about her take on some of the legal discussion around Pinterest. An edited version of our conversation follows below.
Q: What strikes you about Pinterest?
A: I think what’s very interesting about Pinterest even with the revised terms of service is that, as a social media forum, it’s focused on third-party content for the most part.
They made a change recently that promotes the idea of self-promotion. Before, they had basically instructed users not to use it as a tool for self-promotion, saying it was a place to find the beautiful things you find on the Web.
But that still means you’re posting other people’s content, and you’re not really allowed to pin without permission.
Pinterest now has 10 million users, and I’m sure that they’re not all copyright lawyers. The vast majority of users probably didn’t look at terms of service. Even if they did, chances are that they didn’t realize it puts the burden on them for pinning. Most people are quite naive about it.
What do think of Pinterest’s changes to its terms of service?
I think Pinterest has essentially laid a better framework for protecting itself by not only promoting the posting of third-party work and also pushing owners’ own works. They have also made it easier on the copyright reporting side to be compliant with the DMCA.
I think Pinterest made a couple changes to their policy in the right direction. They removed the word “sell” from their policy — they had been given a non-exclusive right to sell content on the site that added a commercial component that could have been trouble. Content creators may like discussion and traffic, but it’s a different situation if Pinterest is commercializing those images. That would have different ramifications for the company.
That has an effect on whether a party may want to enforce their copyright. They may be willing to excuse a fan, but may feel differently against a company. That was a no-brainer for them to take it out.
Many users do not know these nuances of copyright law, they just think what they’re pinning is cool, and want to share it as something they like and want to comment on.
Why don’t other sites, like Facebook, face these concerns on the same scale?
Facebook usually uses thumbnails, or reduced images that couldn’t be copied and reproduced in a commercial way. Often those thumbnails link back to the original content. In Pinterest’s world, when a Pinterest user pins an image to a pinboard, they’re pinning a full copy. Copying is more of an issue than linking.
Pinterest says that users should be providing attribution and linking back, but the enforcement for users to do so is much less stringent. You can post without attribution and a link back. But merely providing attribution doesn’t mean you’re not committing copyright infringement.
What should people who want to use Pinterest do, then?
There are ways to use it that don’t run afoul of copyright law. You can pin your own photographs, if you want to show your friends. You can do that. The risk is that people can then copy it. As long as you’re comfortable with that if you’re uploading your own content, everyone’s happy.
In reviewing what’s available, a lot of people are [posting] images owned by third parties who may have no idea and may not be happy with that.
Are Pinterest users in danger of being sued?
Would anybody sue some woman who has a recipe pinboard? I don’t know the answer to that. Could they? Probably, but certainly it’s not happened yet. But at the end of the day that could be problematic.
One other underlying issue is that Pinterest right now is a non-commercial enterprise, people aren’t making money off establishing a pin board. But at some time that may change and that will be, I think, when the copyright issues become more paramount.
It’s one thing to be a fan [of something], it’s another thing if you’re commercializing images in some way or if Pinterest could be commercializing the images.
Increasing awareness about the issues generally is very important, but I’m not confident that the message will get through to users, nor do they realize the potential for harm. When you look at it through the lens of copyright law, the issues come into focus. People start to think, “I like this image, but do I have permission to copy it and pin it to my board?”
So what can Pinterest do?
I have some sympathy for Pinterest. They put this [service] up and it’s taken off. It shows there was desire for a platform like this. Maybe they didn’t anticipate the explosion and now they’re getting better in terms of cleaning up house.
There remain issues here under copyright law; it will be interesting to see how Pinterest deals with it and how users react. It’s now seeping down to the usership that this is a problem, and it will be interesting to see whether the rapid growth will decline or not.
People are not happy that they have to sign on to terms of service that they may not like for responsibility. Previously a lot had been criticizing the sell language, but I’m not sure all those problems will go away.
With Pinterest, the first line in their terms of service is, “Pinterest is an online and mobile service ... that allows you to share beautiful things you find on the Web.”
That communicates to me that these beautiful things are not your own, you just think that they’re beautiful. But that first line, the very premise of Pinterest, seems to raise copyright concerns.
Whether they can overcome that, I don’t know. They do have a DMCA policy, and users can fill out online to complain about copyright issues. They’ve increased the ease with which you can complain, but that still puts burden on copyright owners.
Could they change the service?
There are changes it could make for its own infringement or its users, that would be helpful.
[Not using thumbnails] is one thing it’s been criticized for. But it would not be a nice pinboard to see if it was just a series of links or images you can’t really see because they’re so small. Linking is a nonstarter for them, and linking under the photograph wouldn’t really solve the problem.
I think there are some additional things that Pinterest could do. They could make further changes to their policies that would put them in a better position. In their DMCA policy, they talk about having the discretion to remove content in appropriate circumstances; under DMCA, it’s incumbent upon [a service] to remove infinging content. Then the individual poster could file a counter complaint.
So there’s still some sloppiness, [and there are changes] that would better square them with what the law requires. They could also start taking down references to finding beautiful things, but that gets to the heart of what Pinterest is. If it was just my stuff on the boards, it would be like an Etsy. It will be an interesting space to watch.