Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Talking Copyright, Artwork, and Pinterest/Tumblr

I want to talk about copyright.

But first some disclosure here: I'm not a lawyer. I've never even taken a class on copyright; I only know some about it because the topic has always interested me and I've looked up various laws regarding sharing, fair use, and copyright holding before. An article about Pinterest that I found via author Tahereh Mafi's twitter got me thinking about the issue once again, as I do every once in a while, especially with sites like tumblr., weheartit, and now Pinterest.

The thing about these sites (and Pinterest is included only because many of the photos pinned are from tumblr/weheartit) is that there are a ton of really, really pretty pictures. For writers looking for inspiration, they're a gold mine. I, and many other published/unpublished writers have Pinterest boards dedicated to our various stories/books. The way Pinterest works is when you "pin" something to your pinboard, it automatically links back to the original site and includes a link below as credit. No problem. Right?


Aside from the fact that, according to Pinterest's Terms of Use, individuals are responsible for getting permission from the rights-holder to pin/repin images (and, I'd assume, other creative works such as writing and videos -- but for simplicity's sake let's just focus on images), there's also the issue of where these images are coming from. I use both tumblr and weheartit and have rarely, if ever, found images that are properly credited on either site. Tumblr in particular is tricky to link back to or give credit. Even if the artist/rights-holder is on tumblr, linking back to the original site only leads to the user's dashboard or tumblog -- not an individual post. This makes it nearly impossible to find the original source for an image.

It's a bigger problem than just getting permission or providing credit to the artist; when you can't find the original source, posting, pinning, repinning, or reblogging an image throws you into murky legal -- and moral -- waters.

Legally, can you be sued for pinning an image to Pinterest without proper permission? Even if you don't know who to get permission from in the first place? I'm not a lawyer, but from the article I read (written by a lawyer) and what I've learned about copyright laws I feel pretty comfortable saying, "yeah, probably." It can probably happen, but that doesn't mean it will probably happen.

Morally is it okay to pin or post an image without having permission from the artist? Is this the same as stealing? Even if you're not doing anything with the image other than (in the case of me and other writers I know) using it as your own inspiration? This is a tricky area for me. I don't illegally download music. I don't illegally download or stream tv shows or movies. I firmly believe that unless the artists are making their work available for free, I shouldn't be taking it. Because making art is work. People deserve to be paid for this work. They deserve to have a measure of control over it. What they don't deserve is me taking it because it's easy and available and I maybe don't have the money at that moment to get it through the right and legal channels. (Note that I know these issues are pretty big moral grey areas. I'm not trying to judge anyone else for what they do/don't do, but simply stating the views I hold for myself.)

But images posted on the internet, easily available, with no source to gain permission from or link back to -- is that different? It does change the equation a little bit, I think, though to be honest I'm not sure how or why. Is it because not being able to find an original source might, you could argue, show that the artist intends their images for the public? Is it because I am not taking these images -- not printing them or downloading them or storing them anywhere on my computer -- and only have them on a website?

Or is it only different because I want it to be different? Because I like having boards full of inspiration for my stories, like having an easy way to access images that are important to me? I don't know. I don't know and this post isn't meant to give anyone advice nor chastise anyone for their online habits regarding creative works. It's more meant to be a springboard for what I hope will be a discussion of the topic. I don't think I'll be sued, though I do think it's a remote possibility. What bothers me more than the legal grey area is the ethical grey area here.

The lawyer who wrote the article I linked to at the beginning of this post has deleted all of her Pinterest boards. I'm not quite there yet, but I do think the topic of reblogged and found images (especially those that seem to have no original source) is a copyright conversation that needs to happen. I think that everyone who is an artist, who makes creative work, has a stake in this sort of dialogue.

So what are your thoughts?


  1. I use Pinterest, but I only ever add pictures directly from their sources (websites or blogs where the pics originate from). I had not seen that you're supposed to get permission before pinning, that obviously makes things harder..

    1. Yeah, that was something I hadn't been aware of before reading the article and it changes things, I think.

  2. You raise some really good points here. It's something that I think about a lot, and like you, I don't have any hard-and-fast answers. We spent the better part of a week talking about copyright in the social media era, and no one, including my professor, had answers to our questions. You talk about the murky, grey area, and you should know that that's intentional: copyright laws are intentionally written to be ambiguous.

    It's incredibly frustrating, because while I see both sides of the issue (and respect an artist's right to their images/works/whatever), I also believe that there's much more value in allowing the free flowing transmission of images and ideas. As long as there isn't profit in it--and with something like Pinterest, for the most part, there isn't--people should be allowed to pin whatever they want. (In all honesty, I have a bigger problem with Pinterest's etiquette policy, which bans any sort of "nudity or hateful content." It's hard to reconcile that (ambiguous) requirement with the terms of use that state users are responsible for all content.

    There's also something to be said for our culture of fear and how that spreads.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to how massive the internet is and how much value there is in prosecuting people for ignorant, mostly innocent copyright violations. I just feel like we have such bigger problems, you know?

    (sorry I wrote a novel. again)

    1. Ha. I like your novels.

      And it's so true what you say about Pinterest and profit, etc etc. My bigger issue is not with crediting the artists, but what to do when there seems to be nobody to credit. After thinking more on it, I think I'm landing on the side of the issue that says if there's not clear who holds the rights to an image, especially one that seems to be floating out in the cyberspace of tumblr/Pinterest, then there's a good chance whoever "owns" it doesn't have much problem with others using it. Plus, I've never really heard of people getting angry over the sharing of art in this way.

  3. I think I'm the only person who doesn't use Pinterest for that :P Most of what I use it for is work stuff, and most of the websites I Pin from encourage people to pin their stuff.