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Public Pinterest - Why The Latest Social Network May Be A Copyright Timebomb


By Steve Kuncewicz

February 23, 2012 | 5 min read

Another week, seemingly yet another Social Network to sign up to, share content over and get excited about. Whether or not you believe that Facebook may well have topped out and grown as big as it ever will, many are (as usual) keeping a weather eye on the horizon for the next big thing; the "Facebook Killer". Those in the know may already be telling you that Google+ is the natural successor to Zuckerberg's monster, but given the fact that it's still a little unwieldy for the luddites amongst us (guilty as charged), it seems as if there's plenty of room left for other new platforms to muscle in on what remains of our attention spans as the user market inevitably fragments.

Eighteen months or so ago, social network devotees got very excited about Quora; you couldn't look at your Twitter timeline without seeing a smattering of serious and not-so-serious questions posed on the site. My own geek-related attempts at Quora jokes received an alarming number of serious responses; even I don't think too seriously about whether or not Batman would actually win a fight with Wolverine - but it looks now as if the site is now only going to find a certain niche (if devoted) audience. Those who love it seem to swear by it and it's still very much alive and kicking, but the initial hype surrounding Quora seemed to die down pretty quickly, with only the heavy adopters still hanging around to pose their own big questions.

So, it may be easy to feel slightly cynical about the latest new and shiny social network - Pinterest. For those that haven't come across it yet, Pinterest is an online notice board where users share ideas on chosen topics by "pinning" content onto their boards for their followers to see and comment on. So far, so ethereal. If the naysayers are right, then it's yet another quirky platform vying for our time. The naysayers will, however, have a problem getting past the fact that Pinterest is well on its way to 12 million users since launching a couple of years ago and is one of the US' fastest growing sites. You may wonder why, and may be surprised to learn that the majority of new users are Women. The answer seems to be that it's easy to use and is generating a massive amount of publicity after something of a "breakout" performance around the NFL Superbowl. Even Mark Zuckerberg has a profile.

Like so many of the big social networks, however, the elephant in the room which may see Pinterest hit an early (if theoretical) stumbling block is one of the usual suspects - copyright. Unless you're only pinning your own content to your profile, you're using someone else's and in the vast majority of cases doing so without permission or paying a licence fee. Right now, Pinterest's users are happily posting photos and other content without the spectre of rights owners casting too much of a shadow over the party, and even though some are already claiming that the site's whole model is built on massive copyright infringement, it's continuing to grow like topsy.

Of course, Pinterest's terms of use do their best to deal with the issue, with users being told on signup that they can't and shouldn't pin anything to which they don't own the rights. This may well be enough to stop a large-scale infringement claim (at least under UK/EU law, where they can fall back on the "hosting defence" in the E-Commerce Regulations and simply immediately remove content when put on notice to avoid liability) and the site itself is now rolling out a metatag which allows website owners to restrict their content from being "pinned" on user profiles.

But, copying any content without permission is still an infringement and still illegal. Whether or not anyone will sue for the damages which they're recover under UK law (a licence fee) or take on the site itself in another jurisdicition remains to be seen but as of right now the position is the same as with Facebook, Twitter and any other platform - using content without permission or falling under a defence or exemption to UK copyright law (such as fair dealing or educational use, but even then those defences only work with an acknowledgement to the copyright owner) is infringement and could lead to your profile or its contents being pulled.

Of course, in the new digital economy it may be that may rights owners simply let the situation lie and become content with their work simply finding a new audience through sharing and reduce their P.R/Marketing budget. For now, however, the risk is still very much live that big content reacts in the same way it has in the music, games and film industries and threatens action left, right and centre. The platform has massive potential, and with a fair wind it could continue to generate an engaged following but as with any other social media platform, users still need to be aware that they use third party images or other content at their own risk. Trust a Lawyer to spoil the party..


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