Pinterest Copyright Issues Could Spur Changes To Terms Of Use And ‘Pin Etiquette’

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Pinterest, the hugely popular website that lets people share photos and images on a virtual pinboard, has had trouble brewing for a while over what some people say are frequent copyright violations that happen when users ‘pin’ photos on the site without permission. But one woman recently discovered that the copyright issue at Pinterest is a little more complicated than that: Pinterest’s own rules of etiquette make it very difficult for regular people to use the site at all without being liable in the event of a copyright lawsuit.

Kirsten Kowalski blew the whistle on this issue in a blog post that went viral late last month. Kowalski, who lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, is a triple-threat of sorts: A professional photographer at DDK Portraits, a corporate lawyer, and a passionate Pinterest user.

As Kowalski explains in the interview embedded above, the main issue is this: Pinterest’s community standards, or “Pin Etiquette,” explicitly discourages users from self-promoting by “pinning” photos they have taken themselves. But at the same time, Pinterest’s Terms of Use actually forbids users from pinning any photo that does not belong to him or her, and states that users are subject to any legal action that is taken from the copyright or trademark holder.

Once she looked deeper into this contradiction, Kowalski made the difficult decision to delete all the Pinterest boards she had made that used photos taken by other people. “A site can’t put out something like that and say, ‘If you use it like we intend you to use it, you’re liable, not us,'” she said.

The issue struck such a chord that Kowalski soon received a phone call from Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann that turned into an hour-long conversation. According to her, he acknowledged that Pinterest was “having some growing pains” and vowed that “changes are coming” to the Terms of Use that will make the site better for photographers and users alike. Over the past few weeks, Kowalski has communicated more with Silbermann and others at Pinterest about what those changes could be — and according to what they’ve told her, they are almost certainly on the way.

It’s all part of Pinterest’s evolution into a real, large company — copyright issues, spam problems, patent wars and the like all come with the territory. If anything, it’s all evidence of how successful the company is. But as Pinterest moves into its inevitable revenue generation strategy, it will be important to have these things somewhat more buttoned-up.

We’ve reached out to Pinterest for comment on the situation and what changes they’re working on; we will update this story if we receive any word back from them.