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An Open Letter to Photographers, Visual Artists, and Art Enthusiasts
March 2012
Enabling Copyright Theft on a Global Scale
Pinterest is enabling copyright theft on a global scale and doing immeasurable damage to artists, photographers, and copyright holders all over the world.
My name is Sean Broihier.   I am the owner of FineArtAmerica.com - one of the largest online art communities in the world.   We have 96,000+ artists and photographers who use our website to sell their images as framed prints, stretched canvases, acrylic prints, and other "print on demand" products.
We have a very active online community, and in that community, there are artists and photographers who love Pinterest... and there are artists and photographers who hate Pinterest.   That's perfectly fine, and I understand the opinions on both sides.
Regardless of whether or not you like Pinterest, it's important to understand the effect that their business model is having on artists and photographers around the world.
When you "pin" an image on Pinterest, here's what happens.
Pinterest makes an exact copy of the pinned image, stores it on Pinterest.com, and then provides a link back to the source image on the original website.
When pinning images, Pinterest users are under the impression that what they're doing is a good thing.   They're introducing the Pinterest community to a new image and potentially driving traffic back to the original website.
Is that a good thing?   Maybe.   Does that make it legal?   Absolutely not.
Just because an activity is perceived as "good" doesn't make it legal.   After all, "good" is in the eye of the beholder.   Pinterest and their users think that pinning is "good".   Millions of artists and photographers around the world disagree.
Comparison to the Music Industry
Here's a perfect analogy:
Fine Art America runs commercials on national TV.   You can see one of them here.
We're getting ready to film a new commercial this summer.   Let's say that I decide to use one of Rihanna's hit songs in the commercial.
I decide that I'm not going to contact Rihanna or ask for her permission to use the song.   I'm also not going to pay her.   I'm just going take the song, put it in the commercial, and start airing it nationwide.
Within a few days, Rihanna and her team are going to contact me and threaten to sue Fine Art America.   Using the same argument that Pinterest members employ, I'll turn around and say:
"Rihanna, this is a good thing.   With this commercial, I have put your song in front of millions of TV viewers all over the world.   Just think about all of the exposure that you're getting - for free!   This is going to increase your CD sales, digital downloads, concert sales, merchandise sales, and more.   You should be very happy that I did this good thing for you."
Am I right?   Maybe - all of those "good" things might happen.
Is it legal.   No way.
No matter how hard I argue that this is a "good" thing for Rihanna, that argument is totally irrelevant.   As the copyright holder, her opinion is the only one that matters.   She probably thinks that the commercial is a terrible idea, and that's her decision to make.
Stop for a moment and think about all of the financial, legal, and marketing issues that she needs to consider.   Does she really want her song associated with an art website?   What if there is backlash from her fans who view this TV commercial as "selling out"?   What about financial compensation for using her song?   Fine Art America is going to experience a huge increase in sales and visibility as a result of using the song - isn't Rihanna entitled to a percentage of those sales?
After considering everything, Rihanna may decide to license the song to Fine Art America... or she may decide against it.   The point is - it's her decision to make.   If she decides to go ahead and license the song, it's also her right to negotiate the terms of the licensing agreement.   Maybe she'll ask for $1 million up-front for using the song.   That's her right.
It is NOT OK for Fine Art America to take the song and use it without her permission.   In fact, it's illegal.
How is Pinterest any different?
It's not.
The images that appear on Pinterest are stolen from copyright holders all over the world.   Recent reports estimate that more than 90% of the images on Pinterest.com were put there without the permission of the image owner.
Someday in the future, Pinterest will be a profitable company.   They might even be profitable right now.   They have lots of options at their disposal for generating income.   They can earn income by selling on-site advertising.   They can earn income by adding affiliate IDs to their out-going clicks.   They can earn income by selling information about their millions of users to third-party advertising networks, etc.
Facebook is a billion dollar company.   Pinterest may one day reach a similar level.
All of it - the entire business model - is built on the backs of stolen content.   Take away the stolen content from Pinterest, and all you're left with is the 10% of the images that are legal - the personal photos that get uploaded by the members.   
Without stolen content, their business model instantly collapses.
In my hypothetical scenario, above, Fine Art America stole a Rihanna song in an effort to boost our traffic, sales, and profits.   If you ask the average person on the street, he or she will probably acknowledge that Fine Art America's actions were wrong and illegal.
Pinterest steals images from millions of artists, photographers, and copyright holders in order to boost their traffic, sales, and profits.   Is that wrong and illegal?   Absolutely.
It's the exact same thing.
You can't take copyrighted content for commercial use without the owner's permission.
Technical Damage to Traffic and Revenue
Copyright issues aside - let's look at the technical damage that's done when someone pins an image.
Before the pinning occurs, the image is under full control of the copyright holder.   Let's assume that the copyright holder is a photographer and that the image is a photograph of a sunset over the Rocky Mountains.
The photographer uploads the image to his own website, and on his website, he offers it for sale as framed prints, greeting cards, and other products.   He also sells advertising space on his website and earns income each month from the visitors who stop by his site to view his beautiful sunset photograph.
How are visitors finding that image and arriving on his website?   They're searching for "rocky mountain sunset photos" on Google Images, and his image happens to be #1 for that search term.   Side note - for artists and photographers, Google Image searches can often account for more than 50% of their monthly traffic.
Now - a Pinterest user comes along and pins that sunset image.   Pinterest makes an exact copy of the image and stores it on a Pinterest web server.   The image now exists in two places - on the photographer's website and on Pinterest.com.
Within a day or so, Google will find that new image on Pinterest.com and add it to their search results.   The next time someone searches for "rocky mountain sunset photos", is that someone going to click on the original image from the photographer's website, or is he going to click on the exact same image on Pinterest.com?
If he clicks on the photographer's website, the photographer has an opportunity to gain a new customer and generate income.   The visitor might click on one of the photographer's ads.   The visitor might sign up for the photographer's e-mail list.   The visitor might purchase a framed print or a greeting card.   All of the benefits of the Google search belong to the photographer.
If the Google searcher clicks on the Pinterest version of the image, all of the benefits go to Pinterest.   Now, Pinterest has an opportunity to gain a new customer and generate income.   Pinterest has an opportunity to sell ad space.   Pinterest gets to reach out to investment bankers and say, "Look at all of this traffic that we're getting.   Invest some money in our business!"
By stealing the image, Pinterest is actually forcing the photographer to compete against his own image and, in doing so, syphoning off his search traffic and revenue potential.
Now - here's a quick side note.   How is Pinterest different that Google Images?   Good question.   First of all, Google Images doesn't make copies of the images that they're showing you.   When you do a Google Image search, you have to actually go to the photographer's website in order to view the image.   The photographer's website registers the visit, and all of the potential benefits of the Google search go to the photographer.   When you search for an image on Pinterest, however, you never have to leave Pinterest.   The photographer's website never registers a visit, and the photographer loses out on the traffic and revenue potential.   In fact, the photographer has no idea that the image search even occurred!   Pinterest reaps 100% of the benefits.
What Pinterest is doing is so blatantly wrong, it's inevitable that they will face a lawsuit.   They're attitude is "steal first, ask questions later", and they're going to try to hide behind the Digital Millenium Copyright Act or fair use law in order to protect themselves.   That's going to be a very difficult argument to make when you're a for-profit business, you're fully aware that more than 90% of the content on your website is stolen, and you're enabling copyright theft on a massive scale.
Ultimately, Pinterest will have to flip their business model around so that they "ask questions first, pin content later".   They'll have to allow webmasters to embed code into their websites which tells Pinterest, "Yes, you can pin the content on this website".   If that code doesn't exist, pinning will be blocked, by default.
Right now, Pinterest assumes that they can steal, by default, and then they force webmasters to block the theft by proactively adding "blocking code" to their websites
That model has to be flipped around.   That's the only way that it works.
Of course, Pinterest knows that.   They're just choosing to ignore it.   They're blatantly ignoring the legal, ethical, and financial implications of what they're doing so that they can build an enormous user base... and then fix their business model later.
I know that Pinterest has a passionate user base, and I fully appreciate their passion for sharing images.   I understand exactly why they're sharing, and I understand that, in their eyes, what they're doing is a "good" thing.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you can see that pinning isn't universally a "good" thing, and even if it was, that doesn't make it right or legal.
By pinning images, you're copying an image from a photographer and giving it to Pinterest.   You're forcing the photographer to compete against his own images for search traffic and revenue.   You're placing a never-ending burden on the photographer to monitor Pinterest on a daily basis and fire off DMCA take-down notices to have his images removed each time they get pinned.
You're doing all of this without asking permission or paying the photographer.
Just because you think it's "good" to do, that doesn't make it right or legal.   Lots of artists and photographers love pinterest.   Lots of them hate it.
The point is - the rights belong to the copyright holders to decide whether or not their images can be pinned (i.e. used by others) and whether or not they should be compensated for the pinning.   That decision is not up to Pinterest and Pinterest's users.
Pinterest has knowingly, willingly enabled a community of users to go out and steal images on a massive scale, and they're using that stolen content to build a profitable business.
Napster went down in flames in 2002 with this exact same business model, and they took down some of their users with them.   You can't build a business on stolen content.
Sean Broihier
Full Disclosure: On FineArtAmerica.com, we allow our 96,000+ members to decide whether or not they want to allow pinning.   If a member wants to allow pinning, we add a "Pin It" button to his/her webpages on our site.   If a member doesn't want to allow pinning, we remove the "Pin It" button and insert the Pinterest blocking code.
Do you have an opinion on this topic?   Let us know.