Will Pinterest sell your images? I don’t think so!

Over the last few weeks, there has been an enormous amount of controversy about the Pinterest Terms of Service (TOS). Many photographers are in great fear that Pinterest might start selling their photos since the following part of their TOS apparently gives them the right to do so:

By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to 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.
[source: http://pinterest.com/about/terms/]

Update – March 24th 2012

Yesterday, Pinterest made the long-awaited changes to their terms of service. One of the most important points is that they removed the their option to sell the stuff that members pin.

On the Pinterest blog, Ben Silbermann (Pinterest CEO) wrote:
‘Our original Terms stated that by posting content to Pinterest you grant Pinterest the right for us to sell your content. Selling content was never our intention and we removed this from our updated Terms.’ [ bit.ly/pin-tosc ]

Read on to see why selling member content was never an option for Pinterest anyway.

Before we start

HDR Photography at Pinterest - farbspiel

I build my profile at Pinterest as an easy way to show you what I like.

Before I tell you why I don’t think there is a need to be afraid here, let me make four things clear:

  1. I am not a lawyer and this is not a legal advice. It is just my personal assessment as a photographer. After reading this article, you will have to make up your own mind about whether you should be on Pinterest or not.
  2. The line of arguments that I am going to present does not imply that everything is fine with the Pinterest TOS. On the contrary, their lax way of dealing with their members’ copyrights and other issues is questionable and needs fixing.
  3. I am on Pinterest because I think it is a great way of presenting who I am and what I am about. Moreover, it enables me to share my work and ideas with more people which is great for me as a photographer. I am fully aware of the TOS and I have taken a personal decision that the value I gain from being a member of Pinterest outweighs the risk of them selling low-res versions of my work.
  4. If you happen to be a lawyer and you have the feeling that any of my statements here are inaccurate, please comment and let me know. I’d be very interested to hear an objective expert opinion.

The business model of Pinterest

Despite their fast growth, rumor has it that Pinterest is currently struggling with their business model. They are making money using an affiliate program where links to products you pin get them a few percent of the product’s price upon a successful transactions. Experts estimate that this does not currently amount to large sums.

In the future, they may seek other models for generating income. But does that mean they will start selling your images? Whatever they choose to make money with in the future, it will be vitally depending on their continuing growth and popularity among the creative people on the Internet. This is what they have. This is their asset. If people would stop using the service (stop pinning stuff) or start blocking their content from being pinned, Pinterest would be dead, no matter what their business model was.

What is member content?

Again, I am not a lawyer. But my understanding of the term member content (the things they may potentially sell) is that it’s the small versions of any image that is associated with a pin and the images that people actually upload to the service. If you only pin your images, Pinterest will have a small version of it on their server (about 600px by 600px) – a version that has limited use for commercial clients.

Why blocking them may work against you

If you are afraid that your work may get pinned and then subsequently sold by Pinterest, you have the option to include a meta tag in the header of your website that tells Pinterest to not accept any pins from your site. However, if somebody really wants to pin your work, they can still do so by grabbing your work off your site and uploading it to Pinterest directly. If somebody does that, then Pinterest may have a larger version of your image without any pointer to your site or you. This may come across as blackmailing where you have to choose between two evils, but it’s just a though that may be worth spending.

What if they started selling their member content?

Ok, lets come back to the question raised in the title of this post: Will Pinterest sell your images? Here is my take on this, and I am going to present it as the most probable way in which things may evolve in the event that Pinterest really sells any of the images that their members pin.

The moment the first case is published where Pinterest sold an image pinned by a member, the following things would happen:

  1. It would get picked up by social media and communicated to the global photography community within hours. By now, everybody is really waiting for this to happen, so this news would spread in no time.
  2. The vast majority of photographers would stop using Pinterest immediate and delete their accounts. I would do that certainly.
  3. People all over the Internet would block their content from being pinned. I would do that too.
  4. Other people would stop pinning and wait to see how things develop.
  5. As a consequence of the above, the core Pinterest service would lose most of its active members within a short time span.
  6. Investors would pull their money from the company as all the prospects of a bright future would be gone with a wink of an eye. They would not find any new investors anywhere.
  7. As a consequence, the company would have no venture capital and no income. Thus, it would effectively be broke.
  8. There would certainly be a few law suits. Since member content can come from anywhere and the pinner is not the creator in most cases, many people would sue many other people (creators sue Pinterest, creators sue pinners, pinners sue Pinterest, investors sue Pinterest etc.)
  9. As a consequence of #7 and #8, the Pinterest owners would spend all their time in court without having much money to actually pay for all of this.
  10. Chances are that at least some of the law suits would end in the Pinterest owners being sentenced to pay a lot of money.
  11. Even if the Pinterest Owners would eventually win each and every law suit after many years, no investor would ever care to give them any money in the future because they proved that they can trash one of the most promising business opportunities in recent years.

Of course, this is a worst-case scenario for Pinterest. But when a company takes a major business decision that’s what they do: They sketch worst-case scenarios and decide whether these are acceptable. Would you want to be the Pinterest owners in this type of scenario? I would not, and I am pretty sure that the Pinterest owners themselves don’t want to. Moreover, I am pretty sure that they are smart enough to recognize this.

In summary, among all the different business models that a rising star like Pinterest may choose, selling their members’ photographs based on their current TOS seems to be the one with the least favorable outcome.

Why would they put up these TOS then?

I think, Pinterest is fully aware of all of this. But why did they put that strange selling thing into their TOS then? In the first place, I think it was one of these cases where they just wanted to make sure that their normal operation would be covered by their TOS under any circumstances. Social media platforms have a history of claiming quite far-reaching rights in order to be on the safe side. I think, the word sell was not actually put in there such that they could sell all the stuff that was pinned, but that it was a precaution.

Then the buzz started, and people started citing the TOS and discussing it vividly everywhere. Pinterest’s first reflex may well have been to change their TOS straight away. But wait! The world was talking about them day after day. Can you think of a better type of advertisement? Sure it’s a controversial one, but you could never pay for that type of viral global PR. So why should they change their TOS just yet? I think, they are following all of our discussions very closely and the moment they start dying out, Pinterest will announce a change in their TOS. This in turn will trigger the second wave of viral PR as everybody will talk and write about it again – only this time, it will be positive PR and even those people who were reluctant to join the service will come in large chunks.

I am not a PR guy, but if I was, and if I was responsible at Pinterest, that would be my strategy.

Closing statement

I am not encouraging or trying to persuade any of you to join Pinterest and start pinning on the basis of this discussion. Everyone has to decide for themselves. What I have tried to do in this post is to give you a perspective that is a little bit broader than most of the articles and posts that I have read so far about this controversial topic. Now, you have to make up your own mind.

If you did make up your mind and decided to be on Pinterest, I am maintaining a List of Photographers on Pinterest. Check it out and join if you like!

Your comments please

I am sure, you have lots of comments, so bring them on!

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10 replies
  1. Frank
    Frank says:

    I would like to join Pinterest and I got an invitation, but you can only create an account if you have Facebook oder Twitter. Unfortunatly I do not have Twitter, because I use already Google+ and I will not going to use Facebook again.

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi Frank,

      you could simply create a Twitter account and join Pinterest with it. You don’t need to use it in any other way, only for the Pinterest login.

      I hope this helps.

  2. Malte
    Malte says:

    I am not on Pinterest, nor am I on Twitter or Facebook. But for one social or other network to require membership of another network as a prerequisite for joining is absurd.

  3. Ursula
    Ursula says:

    You can join Pinterest with just an email address, you just can’t do it instantaneously. You have to click “request an invitation” on the main screen, or get someone who has an account to send you an invitation.

    As for the content of the article, I tend to agree that the kerfluffle over the TOS is a tempest in a teapot. I’d rather have my work on pinterest (where there’s at least a chance that it will be associated with my name/site) than on tumblr.

  4. GG
    GG says:

    “I am not a lawyer and this is not a legal advice.”

    Exactly. I am, and I can tell you that there are a myriad of reasons to avoid Pinterest based on their TOS, not limited to giving them the right to sell user-generated content. For example, it requires you to indemnify Pinterest for any of its OWN legal costs if it’s sued for IP infringement based on something you posted. IMHO I’ll be avoiding this site.

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi GG,

      thanks for sharing your insider knowledge. You may be right with the copyright infringement. But this is not the topic of this post. The question here is: Will Pinterest sell your images?


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  1. […] is that Pinterest will (probably) not sell your images.  As photographer Klaus Herrmann argues in this post, their business model would collapse if they did. Nor will you be sued (probably) for pinning other […]

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