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'Pinterest' Wades In Murky Copyright Waters


These days, a darling of the tech and business world is Pinterest. It's a virtual scrapbooking site that allows users to organize photos, recipes, images they like and pin them to an online bulletin board. Nearly 18 million users logged in to the site last month alone. So when Kirsten Kowalski wrote a blog post wondering whether Pinterest users risk violating copyright laws, it went viral. Kowalski is a lawyer and photographer and Pinterest user herself.

KRISTEN KOWALSKI: I went to the terms and the first thing I saw is that you're not supposed to put - you're not allowed to post anything that you don't own or that you don't have all rights or license to use and that's where the conflict was coming in and the confusion among users.

CORNISH: Kowalski made those comments on the podcast, Bloomberg Law. We wanted to know what's the difference between this site and any other where you might share images online? So, joining us from Irvine, California is Jonathan Pink, an attorney who heads the Internet and New Media Team at the law firm Bryan Cave. Welcome, Jonathan.


CORNISH: So, to start, what is the difference between this site and any other and what does the law say about the right of people to copy images and repost them like this?

PINK: Well, in many ways, Pinterest is no different than any other user-generated site. Perhaps it's more image-oriented than most. But for the most part, it's not terribly different. And what the law says - the Copyright Act says, with respect to the using of images that belong to other people, is pretty basic. And that is that one may not reproduce or prepare a derivative work based on or distribute copies of photographs that one doesn't own, absent those works falling into certain exceptions, fair use being one of them, public domain being another. Or unless the - in this case, Pinterest pinner - has obtained permission from the copyright owner of those images.

CORNISH: Now, the CEO for Pinterest has reached out to this blogger, Kristin Kowalski, to try and figure out ways that could satisfy users like her. They've also sent out statements saying that Pinterest does warn people that they need to get permission from the copyright owner before pinning or reposting an image.

So, what has been the danger here for users? I mean, is essentially the issue that it's all on us as the user to ensure that these things happen and that Pinterest has sort of absolved itself of any risk?

PINK: Well, right. I mean, that is the problem because, as you say, the Pinterest terms and conditions effectively say, look, we're wiping our hands of this. This is all on you. You're representing and warranting to us that you own these images or that you have permission to use them. And, in fact, copyright is what we call a strict liability crime. And what that means is that, simply because I didn't realize or you didn't realize that they may be liable for copyright infringement, that doesn't absolve them of a claim for copyright infringement. They're stuck.

CORNISH: So, Jonathan, when you think of sites like Facebook and Tumblr and like Pinterest and all these digital sites where there's image sharing going on, does it seem like the current regulations have kept up with the technology?

PINK: Well, right. And I don't think the current regulations have kept up with the technology and we don't want to stifle either the creativity of the artist or the ancillary creativity of those who are viewing the arts. And so, because of that, I think that it is time for the Copyright Act to come current and figure out how it can coexist with technology in the modern world.

CORNISH: Jonathan, thanks so much for explaining it to us.

PINK: It is my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: That's Attorney Jonathan Pink. He heads the Internet and New Media Team at the law firm Bryan Cave. He spoke to us about how copyright law applies to social networking sites like Pinterest.



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.