Monday, April 23, 2012

Using Pinterest without Committing Copyright Infringement

            Pinterest is a platform that is gaining popularity like Facebook and Twitter did a few years ago.  Its users report an addiction stronger than Starbucks coffee.  Pinterest invites users to find images that other people have posted on the web and add them to the Pinterest user’s virtual pin board.  It has the potential to drive tremendous traffic to business websites and to help them sell products and services, but most of the images selected by each Pinterest user are “owned” by someone else under U.S. Copyright Law, presenting many pitfalls to be sued for copyright infringement.
            Copyright law in the United States protects all original content from the moment of creation for the life of the author plus 70 years, whether or not it is registered with the Copyright Office and whether or not it bears the copyright symbol of ©.  The copyright laws give exclusive rights to the author to publish, distribute, and make derivative works of the original work of authorship.
            Many people think that giving attribution to the original source is good enough, but attribution and permission are two different things.  How do you use Pinterest without committing copyright infringement?  Here are eight practical tips to minimize your exposure to claims of copyright infringement:
1.      Use your own content.  By using your own content, such as photographs that you personally take, you minimize the risk of copyright infringement.  (There is still a risk of copyright infringement if, for example, you photograph then pin an entire poem that belongs to someone else.)  The trade-off of using your own material on Pinterest is that you are giving Pinterest a “non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use, display, reproduce, re-pin, modify . . . , rearrange and distribute” your content, according to its updated Terms of Service.  By pinning it on Pinterest, you give up your exclusive rights to that work whenever you pin it on Pinterest.
2.      Get permission.  The surest way to avoid claims of copyright infringement is to get permission from the owner of the work that you wish to pin.  Get it in writing.
3.      Use the “pin it” button.  If a content owner encourages users to share their material with the Pinterest “pin it” button, arguably the content owner is giving you an implied license to pin it.
4.      Give attribution.  Whenever you pin something that belongs to someone else, be sure to attribute the original source.  This will not protect you from a claim of copyright infringement if you’re lacking actual permission, but it may minimize your exposure.  A further tip:  don’t just upload directly from Google Images.  When you do that, Pinterest gives the attribution to you by stating “uploaded by user,” rather than giving it to the original source.
5.      Pin products rather than art.  This is based more on common sense than the law, but businesses selling products presumably want to get the word out about their products and appreciate the free word of mouth publicity you’re generating on their behalf.  Some artists appreciate you pinning their work, too, but many artists make money selling or licensing original works, and would argue that you’re driving down the value of their work.  (Caveat: some brand owners may assert claims of trademark infringement if you use their marks without permission.)
6.      Limit your pinning to repining.  When you re-pin material that has already been pinned on someone else’s board, you arguably have the protection of Pinterest’s Terms of Service, which explain that no one should pin anything on Pinterest unless they have the right to do so.  Thus, if ever sued for copyright infringement, you could argue that you had a good faith belief, based on Pinterest’s Terms of Service, that any material you re-pinned was originally posted on Pinterest by someone who had rights to put it there.
7.      Be careful when pinning for profit.  A defense many people point to when sued for copyright infringement is the Fair Use Doctrine, which looks at four factors, one of which is the nature of the copying, and whether it is commercial (meaning, for money) or not.  It is harder to successfully argue fair use when the copying is done for profit than for a hobby or educational purposes.
8.      Pin less than an entire image.  Back to the Fair Use Doctrine: it’s harder to succeed with this defense when you’ve copied the entire image of a work belonging to someone else.  Consider copying only a small portion of the image instead.
            Using Pinterest is a lot like riding in a car.  In a car, you can use a seat belt, turn on your lights, and pay attention to the road to avoid accidents, but you can still be hit.  These are some tips to help you minimize the risk of being sued for copyright infringement when using Pinterest.  The smarter you are, the lower your risk; the more aggressive you are, the higher your risk. 
            Businesses have a lot to gain by using Pinterest, mainly driving traffic to their websites and building brand identity, loyalty, and interaction with customers.  To help protect your business from exposure to lawsuits when using Pinterest, consult a qualified intellectual property lawyer who can tailor advice to your unique situation.  The above tips are not intended as legal advice.