Feb 24, 2012


It was a beautiful cake.  It was tall, golden, crowned with a cloud of whipped cream and festooned with colorful fruit. The picture was a stylist’s masterwork, and it became one of the first things I pinned to my new “Foodie ideas” board on Pinterest.  Others thought the cake looked pretty good, too.  As of this writing, the picture of the cake has been “repinned” more than 2,000 times.

But I didn’t bake the cake, and I didn’t take the picture. The Chicago Tribune, the site where I found the image (and to which the image is linked) has been the beneficiary of some qualified and enthusiastic traffic.  In today’s day and age, when news sites need every eyeball they can garner, I’m sure the Trib isn’t complaining.  Yet.

Last night, stuck at home with the flu, with my satellite dish buried in snow and out of commission and my husband stranded in Roanoke due to the weather, I decided that I’d spend some time really getting into Pinterest.  Anticipating hours of visual enjoyment, I grabbed my laptop, Kleenex and some herbal tea and hit the couch.

However, a closer look at Pinterest’s terms and conditions brought my activities to a screeching halt.  I wound up spending the evening reading the fine print and the associated industry reporting around it – and writing this blog post.

So much for reveling in fantasies of cake, summer houses and wildflowers.

Here’s the deal.  There are two areas of Pinterest’s terms that are really onerous – for both the millions of people happily pinning, and for brands looking at Pinterest as the new social media Holy Grail.

Simply put, the site Terms & Conditions require users to 1) warrant that they own the content they’re posting, free and clear and 2) grant Pinterest operator Cold Brew Labs a “worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services.”

In reality, the majority of pinners are out of compliance with Pinterest’s terms. Now, there seems to be some winking and nodding going on, because Pinterest is not enforcing the terms. That said, the T&C cover Pinterests’ interests.  Users who don’t comply with the terms, however, are at risk of infringing upon the copyright protections of the content they pin.

It could get ugly if Pinterest one day decides to start selling content via their “Services.”   They’re gathering a lot of data around which visuals people find most popular and compelling.  It would probably be pretty easy for them to publish (and sell) the top ten prettiest cakes, most popular spring looks, most sought after wedding dresses, cars, purses, shoes, handbags, vacation homes ….you get the point.  That’s valuable stuff.

After ruminating over this, I marched straight over to the PR Newswire boards on Pinterest, and unpinned a lot of content. Gone are examples of cool client work, PR related humor and interesting infographics that I pinned and re-pinned via our boards. The remaining collection  – comprised of our blog posts and marketing materials – is, frankly, a lot less interesting than it was before I started.  I’m not alone.  Other publishers have been spooked by the Terms, and are taking down their pinboards too.

I’m not begrudging Pinterest the opportunity to make money.  I understand that when I use a free service like Pinterest (or Facebook)  I’m giving away some information about my personal preferences, and at some point, someone is going to probably use that information to market to me.  And I’m OK with that.  If the information I share publicly means that the adverts I see are more narrowly focused on my personal interests, that’s fine.  This is a trade-off I’m willing to make.  And if advertisers pay Pinterest when someone clicks over to an ecommerce site and drops an item in their shopping care, heck, I personally think that is an elegant and unobtrusive piece of marketing.

But assuming the right to do anything they want with the images I upload personally?  That’s a bit more of a problem.  And, I imagine, if it’s a problem for a very casual photographer with zero professional aspirations, I’m sure that language makes Pinterest a non-starter for many photographers and publishers.   And it’s a big problem for brands.

So we’re left with a bit of a conundrum. What to do with Pinterest?  Well, for brands, at this stage in the game, the message is clear.  Share content you are 100% okay with losing control over and that you won’t mind seeing reappearing elsewhere.  For individuals, things are less clear in terms of risk.  Those with vested interests in their content, such as artists and photographers, will probably want to tread lightly if retaining control of their content is important.

Personally, the bloom on this rose is waning.  I’ll still flick through others’ pins, enjoying the interface and treating the site like a picture book.  But my engagement will decrease and my pinning is going to really dry up.  Copyrights and intellectual property are worth protecting and respecting, in my book.

However, I believe Pinterest will continue to flourish, until users bang their heads up against the Terms.  We’ll have to see how this shakes out with respect to Pinterest’s long term model.

I’m pulling for Pinterest, I really am.  The founder hails from Iowa (as do I.) The site is fun to use and is the best discovery engine I’ve ever seen.  It’s a unique and useful service, and would be dead useful for brands, if the Terms were reasonable.  Until that time, brands need to be cautious in their use any free social media service, Pinterest included.   Read the fine print.

Related reading:

Pinterest Users Need to Read the Fine Print

How You Could Get Sued for Using Pinterest

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

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