The Pinterest love triangle


Helma van de Langenberg

The Pinterest love triangle is the newest visual social networking website on the block. But for many brand owners it poses as many threats as it does opportunities, as Helma van de Langenberg explains.

Remember when you had a scrapbook? You collected favourite recipes, nice interior images or dress designs, cut them carefully from magazines and glued them to the pages. With Pinterest you do the same, only online.

The social scrapbooking site allows users to build ‘mood boards’ (visual collages) of favourite and inspiring items from the web and organise them by topic or trend. Users can then share those mood boards with their friends, eff ectively building a social network by allowing users to share ‘pins’ and ‘re-pin’ the items they like on their own mood boards.

Pinterest was launched in 2010 and its recent rise has been spectacular: a year ago there werearound two million users; currently, there are more than 20 million active users. Th at number is still rising, making it one of the fastest-growing social media platforms ever.

For a brand owner, the opportunities are considerable. Many companies are already using the site to generate traffic to corporate websites, to market new products, to strengthen their relationships with customers, to communicate with fans and to keep on top of consumer trends in their industries.

Some have even incorporated ‘pin’ buttons into their websites in order to make it easier for users to ‘pin’ images on their mood boards. But, along with these opportunities, come a number of threats to intellectual property rights.

Copyright concerns

Pinterest is a fun and inspirational website, but the majority of images used on it are taken from the web without authorisation. Generally, they are ‘pinched’—in other words, used without the consent of the creator with their source uncredited, infringing the owner’s copyright and, potentially, inviting disputes.

Although Pinterest provides users with the functionality to infringe copyright-protected content and a forum in which to showcase it, the website has covered its liabilities wellby, for example, providing copyright owners with a notification scheme. This is common practice for websites which enable content sharing and, effectively, grants it a ‘safe harbour’ from infringement claims under European copyright laws.

In addition, the website’s terms and conditions place all liability for copyright infringement on the user’s side. But, few consumers fully understand—or respect—copyright law, and even fewer are likely to sacrifice the content of their mood boards due to the distant possibility of an infringement claim.

Similarly, while users may be violating the owner’s copyright, they are doing so for fun and pleasure, so most creators will think twice before enforcing their rights due to the potential cost and negative publicity that such actions may invite.

Love triangle

There are three parties involved in this matter. The user; the copyright owner (creator); and Pinterest.

As in a true love triangle, there is jealousy and sometimes hatred between the rivals involved and it seems that the parties can’t livewith or without each other. All three are in a difficult position: users are violating copyright law and could, in theory, be the target of an infringement claim; the rights of copyright owners are being routinely infringed, but they are unable or unwilling to act; and Pinterest is keen to avoid disputes—after all, it is looking to make the platform grow and presumably plans to make money from it at some point.

But it just doesn’t feel right for one party to build a brand like Pinterest—and, potentially, generate revenue—using the creativity of others. Therefore the current situation puts users, creators and Pinterest in an impossible position. What can be done?

"Until legislation catches up, it will be impossible to reconcile the need to protect the work of creators with the concept of sharing via the Internet."

Clearly, a balance needs to be found that enables users, creators and online content-sharing websites to co-exist to the benefit of all three parties, but for that to happen, the law needs to catch up with reality.


No longer fit for purpose

Pinterest illustrates how complicated and difficult it is to apply legal restrictions in the online space, highlighting the tension that exists between legislation and new business models. It doesn’t seem desirable, let alone possible, to prohibit new developments online, but until legislation catches up, it will be impossible to reconcile the need to protect the work of creators with the concept of sharing via the Internet.

We need to find a solution that allows innovative websites such as Pinterest to exist and prosper, while also enforcing the rights of creators—and compensating them where revenue is being generated off the back of their rights. One example is a mandatory licensing scheme that enables photographers or image owners to let users post pictures in return for a royalty payment paid by the website owner.


Many believe that the end of image copyright— or, at least, copyright enforcement—is near, but there is no good reason why creators should be forced to give up those rights. We need to re-think our copyright laws to make them ‘fit’ with the new online world, rather than discard them altogether. New legislation is to be expected, but when looking at the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), we still have an interesting journey ahead of us.

By adjusting legislation in line with online business models, we could actually provide a means for the creator, not just the website owner, to generate income. But to do this, legislators need to create a law that is enforceable in practice, as well as in theory; only that will provide a solution that will satisfy the needs of all three parties in the Pinterest triangle.

If you don’t want your images to be on Pinterest, you can block the pinning of material from your website by adding the following code:(For more information on this visit http:// and scroll to Linking to your blog or website.)


Helma van de Langenberg is a salaried partner at the Novagraaf Group, based in Amsterdam. She can be contacted at:

This article was first published on 01 September 2012 in World IP Review

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