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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Blogs  >  Pinterest and Copyright Infringement: So What?

Pinterest and Copyright Infringement: So What?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

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The latest hot startup in the photo-sharing space is one that is also creating a lot of controversy about copyright infringement. Pinterest lets users create "boards" of images they find from around the Web. Users “pin up” these images, and share them with friends and strangers.


Is this copyright infringement,” you ask?


Well, imagine exactly the same website that let's users upload music or movies. Do you think the music labels or movie studios would permit this? Pinterest would be shut down before they could get their first dollar of venture capital.


“But they’re photos, not music or movies!”


Yes, and photos have precisely the same copyright protection.


“Ok, wise guy, then why hasn’t Pinterest been shut down?”


Simply put, there’s no one there to stop them, at least not with the same effect and scale as music labels or movie studios. And the reason is reflected in your very statement: society simply regards photos as “different” from movies; they don’t see Pinterest’s use of imagery as copyright infringement.


And this is a natural feeling to the common person. Everyone shoots pictures all the time; it takes milliseconds; most people don’t invest any thought or intent. By contrast, music and movies require considerable time, effort and expense to produce. So, there’s a difference.


And herein lies the unresolved problem: the law is the law, and photos are copyrighted works, regardless of the time, skill, or anything else necessary to create them. Accordingly, photos are supposed to enjoy the same legal protections as music and movies.


“I see. But, most people want and expect to share their images with others.”


Yes! Their images. Pinterest isn’t letting people share their own photos; they’re sharing other people’s photos.”


“Ah, I see now.”


Very good, Grasshopper.


As a society, we permit this kind of infringement, which explains why there are no large, powerful, influential organizations representing the interests (and the copyrights) of photographers. People simply regard photos as different.


A case in point can be found in this article on chow.com, discussing people’s reactions when they found their recipes were being “pinned” to Pinterest, along with the photos of their foods. The complaint was that their intellectual property (cooking recipes) were being stolen; the recommendation: “Just allow the photo to be shared, not my recipe!”


You see? Never mind the pro photographers whose pictures were being infringed; they’re not part of the conversation.


“Ok, so what about those professional photographers? How are they hurt?”


I’ve been a photo industry analyst since the mid 1990s, and I’ve seen the industry suffer more from “piracy” than the film and music industries combined. Every single publicly traded stock photo agency has either gone out of business or withdrawn from public trade. Getty Images is the last profitable company of any significant size, and even then, its pay to photographers has been drifting lower for over ten years to maintain that status. A series of studies from Picscout – a photo-tracking service for stock agencies and photographers – finds that 90% of commercial websites use at least one photo in a manner considered to be “commercial use” without the copyright holder's authorization. No company whose business model is to sell or license photography has had venture capital investment since 2000.


Yet, the shadow economy for photography is enormous. In a study I conducted in 2007 on contract for a potential investor in a photo-related technology, I found that most photo buying and licensing was done on a peer-to-peer basis, mostly in local markets and exchanges, at a scale that suggested the total economic activity tipped at $25B/year. Yet, none of it can migrate online because of the “perception” that photos don’t count when it comes to piracy, and because there was no possible infrastructure to enforce legal protections.


So, yes, the photo industry has been starved to near extinction, compared to what it could be if it similar legal representation that the music and movie industries do.


“My gosh, I’m getting sad. But I still want to share photos online.”


Don’t misunderstand me; I’m cognizant and sympathetic to the non-professional side of photography and the social value of sharing images, both culturally and economically – including to those photo-sharing sites like Pinterest. There’s no question that people should be able to share images online with others in an unfettered manner that Pinterest provides, as well as every social network.


But to do so in compliance with copyright law would require a series of rights access that cannot be scaled up to serve the public at large without a centralized (and streamlined) rights clearinghouse. Legally speaking, Pinterest should obtain rights from “everyone,” but it’s not possible because people are uploading other people’s photos. If there were a central clearing house open to everyone – say, like the music labels have – Pinterest could enter into a unified license agreement.


Without such a clearing house, the law is the law, and the courts will eventually be forced to reconcile the law with society’s desires. Well, provided cases are brought to court to press the issue.


This is not new. Copyright itself has been a controversial topic for society (and justice) for years, and continues to this day. On one hand, there are many who believe that copyright protection should be lifted, if not severely curtailed, largely in order to avoid this very problem of the social benefit from photo-sharing. Economists, on the other hand, understand that the creative economy only exists because people can earn a living from their efforts—that "human creativity is the ultimate economic resource." (Florida 2002) If they couldn’t economically benefit from their creations, society would suffer more, since the lack of incentives (and hence, resources) would starve an important and socially valuable industry.


The only legal basis for dealing with this dispute continues to reside in the Copyright Act in 1976, which states that “copyright protection extends to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression,” including photography, of course. Tightly coupled with the Copyright Act is The Berne Convention, which states that “Copyright must be automatic; it is prohibited to require formal registration.” Yes, the USA provides added protection that permits authors to register their works with the Copyright Office, which then affords them “statutory damages” in legal claims, which guarantees the copyright holder a minimum of $750 per claim, and up to $150,000 if the infringing party “willfully infringed” (that is, with intent). But this registration is not required in order for the copyright to be held by the person holding the camera, and that ownership comes with rights.


So, Pinterest and other social networks are technically contributing to copyright violation by permitting other users to upload unauthorized copyrighted works. This is called “contributory infringement.” This Wikipedia excerpt explains, “indirect infringement arises when a party materially contributes to, facilitates, induces, or is otherwise responsible for directly infringing acts carried out by another party.”


These underlying legal principles of copyright law are subtle, and few are as educated on it as they like to believe—especially corporate law firms that write the legal mumbo jumbo in “terms of service” agreements (TOS). To wit, Pinterest’s own TOS stipulates that when you upload a photo to Pinterest, you are granting it a "perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free license to use” your photos on its site and "application or services." While this is applicable if you own the photos you upload, you cannot grant this permission for photos that aren’t yours. That is, you are not the legal authority of someone else’s photos. So, Pinterest’s own TOS is unenforceable on photos that the user doesn’t own, which is pretty much all of them. So, strictly speaking, their TOS is toothless, pointless and moot.


But this is also besides the point: the user violated the copyright, not Pinterest.


So again, who’s to complain? To whom? Against Whom?


One could try to sue Pinterest, which is where their lawyers would quickly seek protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which states that websites that host content uploaded by users cannot be held liable for copyright infringement, so long as the site complies with “take down notices” from those copyright holders. Here, the original owner of the copyright notifies the company with a “take down notice,” and the company is off the hook—no TOS necessary.


Many companies – Pinterest, included – very effectively use the DMCA as the “get out of jail free” card, effectively keeping their business out of legal danger.


But once again, we come back to the subtleties of the Copyright Act. As stated earlier, Pinterest could be liable for secondary infringement, which would make them ineligible to seek protection from the DMCA. For matters relating to copyright, courts would have to decide on the merits of such claims solely on case law developments.


This brings us to landmark cases, such as Napster and most notably, Grokster, where courts have established a three-point test to determine if a website “induces infringement”: (1) whether the majority of the content uploaded by users is infringed works; (2) whether the site provides tools that can only be used to infringe; and (3) whether the use of the works are (a) for commercial purposes or (b) harms the commercial interests of the copyright holder.


In the case of “majority of content,” this part is pretty self-evident.


In the case of the site providing tools that are “only” used to infringe, Pinterest’s defense would have to be based on a finding by the Supreme Court in “Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc,” where the court found that, contributory liability cannot be imposed unless the technology lacks substantial non-infringing uses. Flickr, for example, only provides an “upload” button that allows users to upload images from their own hard drive. This provides “substantial non-infringing uses.” Indeed, the content on Flickr has most of its images uploaded by the original photographers themselves. Pinterest, however, cannot demonstrate this: their tool does not permit uploading photos from one’s own computer; in fact, it encourages users to pin photos from other sites.


The third test –commercial profit– also has roots in the legal doctrine of “Vicarious Liability,” where “courts have extended liability to those who profit from infringing activity when an enterprise has the right and ability to prevent the infringement.”


If someone were to go to the effort of showing that Pinterest satisfies all three tests, the company loses its DMCA protections, and must now face the music. This then re-engages copyright law, where the company could be liable for statutory damages if any of the works are registered with the copyright office. (Many pro photographers whose works are generally passed around the most, actually register their works.) Statutory damages mandate a minimum of $750 per infringed work, although a judge can raise the limit of the claim up to $150,000 per infringement if the defendant was deemed to “intentionally infringe.”


One would assume that if a site lost its DMCA protection because it was “inducing infringement,” then a judge would likely also rule that the infringement was “willful.” Hence, the $150,000 per image claim would be a hefty speeding ticket.


“Sounds troubling for Pinterest! Are they in trouble?”


Probably not. And it’s not because they aren’t in violation of copyright law—they are. It’s back to the basic question of “who’s going to sue them?” Unlike music and movie companies that have hoards of lawyers representing their interests and who aggressively shut down websites and file legal claims perpetually, photographers have no one. As individuals, photographers are too unsophisticated to navigate the difficult and expensive litigation process, so it is highly improbable that many will sue. And even if they did, they won’t be able to do so in a critical mass necessary to materially affect the company the way may music labels can. And even if they could, they’d be up against the same free-speech advocates that defended Grokster. This would not be an easy or inexpensive task, and would probably garner a large push-back from society who already regards photos as “different.”


I don’t mean to “pick on” Pinterest, actually. They are but one of many such sites. Polyvore not only satisfies the three-point test of “inducing users to infringe,” but their volume knob goes to 11: They offer even more sophisticated tools to infringe, including software that specifically designed to copy photos from other sites, while also providing no tools to upload users’ own photos, which flies directly into the face of the definition of Contributory Infringement, and satisfies the Supreme Court’s own language on whether the technology has a substantial “non-infringing use.” Worst of all, they are actually selling products, not advertising, which satisfies “Vicarious Liability.”


And their legal problems go beyond just copyright. Users also upload photos of celebrities to adorn the products sold on the site, which could be in violation of publicity laws if there isn’t a model release. (Cameron Diaz’s picture is one of the most popular.)


Polyvore does provide its own photos, which are legitimately licensed -- namely, from the companies selling the products depicted in the pictures. The test is whether the majority of the content uploaded by users are unauthorized. Other factors that appear to implicate their “knowledge of willful infringement” is a statement warning people not to infringe, and the promise they will take down photos if contacted by copyright owners. While one could argue that they are trying to give notice, this is akin to warning labels on cigarette boxes. No one’s fooling anyone here.


There’s no doubt that Polyvore knows its users are infringing, and it’s certainly possible that they are aware that they are also “inducing” infringement, but they are counting on the same two factors that Pinterest is: society accepts copyright infringement of photography, and more importantly, there are no special interest groups that will sue them for “contributory infringement” on behalf of a class of photographers.


“So, as long as society has accepted photography as a non-threatening step-child in the copyright debate, these sites are safe.”


The force is strong in you, young Jedi.


Still, the risk profile could suddenly spike if there were an unintended rise of those who would intend to assert those copyright protections, which could happen if incentives were to suddenly materialize. For example, a SOPA-like legislation.


“Huh? SOPA? Come again?”


Although the Stop Online Piracy Act is dead for now, the music and movie industries are not about to let it go. Something will eventually re-emerge with new and different terms. We’re already seeing a great deal of anti-piracy legislation coming out of Europe, and Congress and others are under a great deal of pressure to do something (probably after the election season).


What needs to be considered is the unintended consequences that might result if they don’t reconcile the incompatibilities between the social aspect of photography and the fact that it’s a copyrighted work. For, whatever law that has the intention of protecting movies and music just might create a financial incentive for new actors to enter the stage and try to represent the interests of the entire class of photographers, professional and otherwise. And the social networks that use photos are far bigger and vulnerable than the usual targets that music and movie studios attack, escalating the size of litigations that could arise.


A poorly drafted SOPA-like law could affect the internet in highly unexpected ways, akin to the sudden and immediate changes we saw in our political system after the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizen’s United.


“So, do you have a better solution?”


Funny you should ask.


I don’t believe one can ever legislate around this problem. There are two economies at play all the time: a legitimate one and an underground pirate economy. The best you can do is create so much incentive for people to participate in the legitimate economy, that the efforts to pirate become less interesting and less profitable, yielding a progressively smaller proportion of that industry’s total economy. Steve Jobs pleaded with the music industry to remove music locking in song files using the argument that people don’t want to infringe, so long as they can get access to what they want at a fair price. When the music industry finally agreed to remove those locks, online music sales spiked. But the music (and film) industries haven’t kept up with cultural and technological trends in how they handle the business side of their industries. They are still trying to solve 21st century problems with 20th century attitudes.


It’s not that I disapprove of litigation – it’s the music and movie industries greatest advantage. The legitimate marketplace exists because music and movie companies have the infrastructure to enforce copyrights; this is the stick that gets people to seek the carrot, benefiting the entire marketplace financially and fairly.


When it comes to photography, there is no infrastructure for enforcing copyrights, so there’s no viable marketplace. I mentioned that there needs to be a central clearing house for photo rights management: My solution to that is here.

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