Pinterest, now the third-largest social network in the United States, has been under intense public scrutiny in recent weeks. Many have wondered very vocally if the site is facilitating copyright infringement on a mass scale, a la Napster a decade ago.
That’s a big question, and I’m not going to try to answer it here. Many others have already addressed it, and as a private practitioner, I’d rather keep my opinions on the issue to myself. But one thing we can all agree on is that answers to such questions should be based on accurate facts. And one fact that few of those discussing the issue seem to appreciate is the difference between “pinning” and “repinning” on Pinterest.
Used as a verb, “pin” means to add an image to Pinterest. Pinned images are copied from their host servers and duplicated on Pinterest’s servers. This is significant to (although not necessarily dispositive of) the copyright infringement debate, because one of the things that U.S. copyright law gives copyright owners the “exclusive right” to control is the “reproduction” of their works.
But a Pinterest user may also add an image to her board that has already been pinned to another user’s board. This is called “re-pinning,” and is somewhat analogous to “retweeting” a message on Twitter. Although this causes the image to appear on multiple Pinterest boards, it does not create an additional copy of the image on Pinterest’s servers. You can confirm this yourself by re-pinning images, and verifying that the image has the same URL regardless of the board on which it appears.
In other words, repinning does not infringe the copyright owner’s reproduction right. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily get repinners out of the woods. Copyright owners have four other exclusive rights in their images as well–the rights to control distribution, derivation, public display, and public performance–and there are those who have argued that even repinning may infringe one or more of these rights. But I am not taking a position on those issues here.
It seems certain that Pinterest and other online innovators will continue to spark heated debate over online copyright issues well into the foreseeable future. The technology evolves so quickly that it can be difficult to understand how it works or how it implicates copyright principles. But it’s important that the courts, companies, consumers, and copyright holders alike make our decisions based on accurate information.