Fence [noun]: “a receiver of stolen goods” – Merriam Webster.
“An individual who knowingly buys stolen property for later resale, sometimes in a legitimate market.” – Wikipedia.
Like every latest greatest thing on the interweb Pinterest has seen a sudden rush of subscribers simply because…well…because it’s the latest greatest thing on the interweb. Described as a “virtual pinboard”, Pinterest claims to “let you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web”. This is usually done by a “Pin It” button, a browser bookmarklet that copies content from a web page to the user’s Pinterest board. From there it can be copied by other Pinterest users to their boards, and from there…well, you get the idea.
Alarm bells should already be ringing, but that hasn’t prevented a stampede for the Pinterest bandwagon. BMI Airlines launched a Pinterest lottery; GUESS, a Pinterest contest. Amateur Photographer, the world’s oldest photographic magazine, began pinning iconic photographs from the likes of Magnum, Corbis and Getty Images. The UK’s National Portrait Gallery has likewise been pinning images from their collection. And millions of individuals have been trawling the web, pinning whatever takes their fancy.
And then the questions started. Like: who owns all this stuff anyway? And what does Pinterest plan to do with it all?
As the answers emerged – somebody else owns it, and Pinterest now claim rights to do whatever they want with it – some of the corporate pinners began to back off. First the Boston Business Journal pulled all their material after only one day on-site. Then Amateur Photographer’s pins quietly disappeared: unlike the BBJ the AP has declined to say why. The NPG material is still there, but after comments from photographers the NPG is now “looking at the implications for the Gallery”.
As concerns grew it became clear that for many people Pinterest’s real crime wasn’t just that they had created a system designed to encourage easy copyright infringement, but that they attempt to shift the blame for the ensuing infringements onto their users:
“YOU ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT, TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, THE ENTIRE RISK ARISING OUT OF YOUR ACCESS TO AND USE OF THE SITE, APPLICATION, SERVICES AND SITE CONTENT REMAINS WITH YOU.”
“you agree to defend, indemnify, and hold Cold Brew Labs, its officers, directors, employees and agents, harmless from and against any claims, liabilities, damages, losses, and expenses, including, without limitation, reasonable legal and accounting fees, arising out of or in any way connected with (i) your access to or use of the Site, Application, Services or Site Content, (ii) your Member Content, or (iii) your violation of these Terms.”
There is of course a way to use Pinterest perfectly legally: just pin work you’ve created yourself or own the rights to. It’s true that in doing so you give Pinterest the rights to do anything they want with your work, including selling it. But if you’re a tireless self-promoter who doesn’t care how your work is used you may feel the publicity you get from Pinterest makes the trade-off worthwhile.
Except for one problem: that’s not what other Pinterest users – your audience – actually want you to do. So when tireless self-promoter and internet fauxtographer Thomas Hawk went on a “manic pinning episode of his own work” he was accused by one fan and Pinterest user of “masturbating in public” in using Pinterest for self-promotion.
And Pinterest agree, albeit in rather more restrained language:
“Avoid Self Promotion
Pinterest is designed to curate and share things you love. If there is a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However, try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.”
So by their own admission Pinterest isn’t primarily for publishing original creative work, but republishing the work of third parties who almost inevitably will not have given permission.
Pinterest’s main defence in all this is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which provides Internet service providers with a measure of protection against prosecution as a result of copyright infringement by their users. But DMCA requirements are quite specific. They’re a package deal in which the provider is supposed to meet all the requirements, not pick and choose which parts they prefer, adding additional language to suit. However, according to intellectual property lawyer Connie Mableson, that’s exactly what Pinterest have done, leaving their DMCA defence looking distinctly creaky.
Even if Pinterest fix the wording of their DMCA offer there’s a further threat lurking: the DMCA is intended to protect providers some of whose users upload infringing content from time to time, not to protect companies whose entire raison d’être is copyright infringement. But that’s exactly the position Pinterest is in: without copyright infringement they have no business. Anyone at Pinterest who thinks that doesn’t matter needs to read this:
“We have spent millions of dollars on legal advice over the last few years and our legal advisers have always told us that we are secure and that we are protected by the DMCA which is a law in the US that is protecting online service providers of liability for the actions of their users.”
Those are the words of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, currently facing charges of racketeering, copyright infringement and money laundering. And what led to those charges? Why, Megaupload’s members were uploading and redistributing copyrighted material without permission – just like Pinterest’s members.
Econsultancy has asked: is Pinterest a copyright time bomb? The simple answer is yes. Pinterest is a cynical exercise that enables and encourages others to steal and is profiting from those thefts, while simultaneously attempting to plead innocence and place the blame on those who Pinterest encouraged to steal in the first place. But when the lawyers come calling, as they surely will, Pinterest may find that by shafting both creators and consumers of culture they have precious few friends left to defend them.