Experts Blog

The Legality of Pinterest: Copyrights, Spam and Imposters

By Shelly Kramer on May 15, 2012 - 07:10 PM

There’s no doubt that, in the last few months, Pinterest has become the social media darling du jour. In March, Experian Hitwise data indicated that Pinterest was the third most popular social media platform in the U.S. with 104 million visits.

Yet things aren’t entirely sunny for the virtual pinboard. New stats show that Pinterest is losing users in April—down from 11.3 million on March 1 to 8.3 million on April 20.

In addition, concerns have emerged about the legality of Pinterest on a number of fronts. At the top of the list? Possible copyright issues that could result from Pinterest users pinning images from all manner of sources. Spam and false identities have also become more widespread Pinterest problems as the site’s user base grows.

We’re not entirely ruling out Pinterest as a component of a larger digital marketing strategy—but before you pin, it’s best to be aware of some possible issues. Let’s dive in.

Pinterest Problem 1: Copyright and Liability

Kirsten Kowalski of DDK Portraits caused quite the stir when she published a blog post in February that detailed why she “tearfully deleted” her Pinterest boards. As Kirsten wrote, “What is the difference between posting another person’s photographs on your Pinterest page and posting another person’s photographs on your Facebook page? If the latter is so clearly a violation of copyright, why isn’t the former?”

And on a site that’s based entirely on the sharing and distribution of images, such copyright concerns shouldn’t be taken lightly. As part of the site’s terms of service, which were revised in late March, Pinterest users are responsible and liable for the content they post:

“PINTEREST takes no responsibility and assumes no liability for any User Content that you or any other User or third party posts or sends over the Service. You are solely responsible for your User Content and the consequences of posting or publishing it, and you agree that we are only acting as a passive conduit for your AND OTHER USERS’ online distribution and publication of your AND THEIR User Content.”

Despite these very real copyright concerns (and complete individual liability, as outlined by Pinterest), the majority of users continue to pin with seemingly no consequence. And it’s likely that a good portion of these users will never run into content owners who request that the content be removed, or opt to pursue legal action.

That doesn’t mean that the copyright issues shouldn’t be taken seriously, however. And if you’re contemplating Pinterest for business or brand use, we recommend taking extra steps to make sure you’re protected. How so? By only pinning content you own or have a license to use. Or, if you’re interested in using content for which you don’t have a license, take the time to contact the content owner to see if the proposed use is acceptable.

Sure, that takes the spontaneity out of Pinterest and drastically reduces the size of the content pool from which you can pin. Yet it’s the only way to make sure your businesses’ Pinterest presence doesn’t end up in costly and embarrassing legal issues. After all, businesses are at a higher risk than individuals for two reasons, according to lawyer Gonzalo E. Mon: commercial use and deeper pockets.

Pinterest Problem #2: Spam

It’s a classic “chicken and egg” scenario: Which came first, the social network or the spam? Spam is an ubiquitous nuisance, and Pinterest is no different—especially now that spammers like “Steve” have figured out ways to make more than $1,000 per day by, you guessed it—spamming Pinterest.

So how does he do it? First and foremost, according to an interview with The Daily Dot, because it’s easy.

“Pinterest is by FAR the easiest social network to spam right now,” he said. “Quite possibly the easiest ever to spam. It requires almost no work to get started and no money to invest. You just have to know how the system works and how you can fix it to your advantage.”

Spammers like Steve create bot accounts that, in some cases, number in the thousands. These bots then promote dresses, boots and other goods that are pinned to fake accounts—or, as Steve shared, an Amazon affiliate account. Pinterest’s algorithm rewards and promotes pins that amass the most likes and repins, so by assembling a large number of spam bots that repin the same images over and over, those pins skyrocket in popularity. And since they link to an Amazon affiliate account, that means that Steve makes money—a lot of money.

So how do you spot a Pinterest spammer? The profile will likely give you your first clue. Spam profiles have no photos, an unusual name and will include several empty Pinterest boards and one that could have hundreds of images. The Daily Dot recommends keeping an eye on the repinners, too—if you see a string of pinners with odd names and no profile photos, they’re likely spammers. Steer clear!

Pinterest Problem #3: False identities

Just as people have squatted on celebrity and other big name Twitter accounts, some Pinterest users are creating profiles using well-known names like Michelle Obama and FourSquare. Although these sorts of false identities, like spam, are nothing new to social networks, each site differs in how it approaches the issue—and according to Ars Technica, Pinterest hasn’t done much (yet) to curb impersonators.

Pinterest released a brief statement of policy on Trademark Infringement and User Names. If a Pinterest user believes his or her name has been affected, the user can file a complaint using the site’s Trademark Complaint Form. From there, according to Pinterest’s Trademark page, “Pinterest will review your submission and take whatever action, in its sole discretion, it deems appropriate, including temporary or permanent removal of the trademark from the Pinterest site.”

If you or your company has a widely known name, you may want to consider securing your Pinterest profile, even if you’re unsure about using the site. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

With the exception of the copyright issues, Pinterest’s other problems aren’t much different than the annoying and ongoing obstacles faced by other social networks site. And in light of Pinterest’s explosive growth in a short period of time, it’s no wonder that people have targeted the site for both spam and false identities. By familiarizing yourself with these issues and taking any necessary precautions, you’ll be better equipped to keep your profile in the clear.

Have you run into spam or false identities on Pinterest? Or have the copyright issues made you think twice about what you pin? I’m interested in your take about how you’re using Pinterest and where you think the site is headed.