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Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Perplexing Issue of Pinning and Copyright

For the past two weeks, I've been struggling to make a decision for my blog about pinning and copyright. The problem is, I don't really know how I feel about it. On the one hand, I'm flattered that so many people want to pin something I've made, and I did put it on my blog to show other people how to make it. On the other hand, I'd like to have credit for it, and if someone is going to make money off of my photo, I'd just as soon it was me. Some people, artists in particular, are adamantly opposed to Pinterest, Indulgy, and similar sites, and if I were an artist creating a picture to sell online, I probably would be too. I wondered if my feelings about it even matter when copyright infringement is obviously wrong? And I wondered if my policy, whether for or against pinning, would have a ripple effect? If I endorse pinning, am I culpable of encouraging copyright violation, and making it harder for those who take a stand to protect their copyrights? If I denounce pinning, will it serve to educate pinners, and result in improvements at pinning sites which are fair to both sides? Or does it matter what I do at all?

To most people on the internet, copyright isn't an issue they've ever considered. A lot of people don't know what copyright means, or don't care. They think that if something has been placed on the internet, it is free for them to take. And a lot of it is. But a lot of it isn't either. I'll admit, after first getting online fourteen years ago, I didn't give it a lot of thought. If I typed "Free clipart" or free anything into a search engine, I didn't check to see if the website offering it really owned it. I just saved it onto my computer and used it whenever I wanted on the forums I frequented. Everyone else did so it was okay, right?  Yes, I was a lemming.

But then I had a personal experience with copyright theft. About ten years ago, I created a genealogy website at geocities. Remember geocities? It was free, and free was the only thing I could afford back then. I put my entire family tree on it, with photos of me, my husband, kids, everyone in the family for whom I had photos. I really never thought of anyone searching out any of the names in my tree, or ever seeing my website. Search engines weren't as good then and geocities itself was hard to search. But one day I was searching for more information on my great grandmother, and I came across my entire tree and a lot of the photos of my ancestors and living relatives. To say it freaked me out would be an understatement. I did get my photos removed from that site, and I removed all my family photos from my website. What I didn't know is that while the person removed my photos from their personal website, they kept the photos on their computer, and they pop up from time to time on Ancestry trees which can be copied over and over so many times that no one knows where the photo originally came from. It took several years to get the photos of my living relatives off Ancestry, and I'll never know if they are gone forever, or just for now. Eventually, it won't matter as I have few living relatives left, and I will never put my photo on the internet again.

So when I started blogging, I was fairly careful of the photos I posted. Most were my own, and I made sure all the others were in the public domain. But I didn't know that attribution was necessary even for those photos, so I have taken off all those too since I don't remember where I got them. And through the years, I've noticed that my blog photos have sometimes been copied to other blogs and to facebook.

And that brings me to Pinterest. I first heard about it almost two years ago, but didn't really understand what it was, or why it mattered. If I wanted inspiration, I just searched google images. If I found an image that interested me, I clicked it, went to the website and bookmarked it. The bad thing about bookmarks is that you have to open every one to find the right one, or the links get broken, or the images get removed, or as I experienced, the computer crashes and it's all lost. Then I started a blog just for projects I liked so they could be easily found with a link back to the original post for all the details. But that took a lot of time because I only featured projects after getting written permission from the author, and a lot of people I ask never respond. I don't know if my request went to their spam folder or what.

So I looked at Pinterest again, signed up, and pinned a few things. Then, I saw a segment on our local tv station about Pinterest violating copyright law. You can watch the video here. It bothered me to the point that I took most of my photos off Pinterest. If I couldn't find the original source of the photo and see written consent on the website to pin the photo, I took it off. That left me with two photos. Well really one legal photo as I couldn't find the source of one photo. It had been pinned so many times that it's source was unknown and I couldn't find it through an image search either. It's an important photo to me and I'll share why in a future post.  I have it on there in hopes the owner will one day find me through it. I've since added two more photos that had written consent of the owner. But locating the source and written permission is time consuming, and most people don't care enough to do that.

I get enough hits off pinterest that I know some of my photos are pinned and repinned regularly. Yet, up until now, my posted policy has been that all rights are reserved and I have never had someone ask to pin or copy any of my photos. I spent thirty minutes one day searching for just one of my photos and found it pinned on hundreds of boards. One board, owned by a home improvement store (who should certainly know about copyright infringement), had the photo pinned with over a thousand repins. Some pins had a link to my blog, and others had links to google, to another blog, or it would say "uploaded by user" which I think means that the user saved it to their computer and then loaded it to Pinterest. So much for my policy.

I began making a mental list of pros and cons, watching other blogs to see what they did, and reading articles online to find out the legalities and why so many were so against it. Most are either similar to the tv news segment I linked, or so emotionally charged that it was hard to see any logical reasoning behind it. There was one extremely well written and easy to read article by Anile of Girlfriday on the Ethics of Pinterest that explains every salient point against Pinterest. I encourage you to go ahead and click on the link, it is placed here with her permission. It will come up in a new window so you can read it now or come back to it when you finish this.

Both Anile and the tv news story I linked say that Pinterest discourages self-promotion, or pinning your own stuff while at the same time saying you can only pin things to which you own copyright or have obtained permission. However, soon after that article was written, Pinterest changed the policy on self promotion, and also removed a clause about selling pinned items. You can read that in this BizJournal article and here in Pinterest's current Terms of Service. While I was poking around Pinterest, I noticed that Disney and Mackenzie's Child boards do pin their own items. I haven't been a fan of Disney in recent years, but I was impressed to see that in all their boards checked, they had not pinned anything that didn't belong to them. Well done, Disney!

I also corresponded with several well-known bloggers I follow, to see how they regarded pinning of their projects. Some thought it hurt their sales because pinners pinned off other boards instead of coming to their blog, some said they didn't care as long as there was a link back to their blog. One told me she thought pinning helped them through the number of hits she received every month from Pinterest because her advertisers paid her by the number of blog hits as well as the number of clicks to the advertisers website. I wonder about that last statement though. I average 500 hits a month from Pinterest according to Google Analytics. Those are just the ones who are curious enough about my projects to want more information. I would guess there are three times as many who just repin and go on. I can't see that those Pinterest hits have helped or hindered my blog. I don't think it has resulted in more comments or more followers. Most of the Pinterest referrals stay on my website for a minute or less, and don't visit other pages. But I doubt it would be any different if they came from a google search except it might take a little more time to pin the photo.

One blogger I corresponded with said that one of her photos had been taken off her blog and used on another site where it went viral. You can read her story here She was upset that a) someone was claiming the photo was hers, and b) she was losing out on the income generated by those hits. She acknowledged that photo theft is common on the internet and takes precautions now, but this was a photo posted before she started watermarking.   This happened to me also.  I found my headboard bench photo on another blog. I tried to contact the blog owner through the comments but I don't think it worked and their contact information is not available on their blog. My only alternative was to post a comment on their facebook page asking them to remove it, and they removed my comment. I was not contacted for permission to repost my pictures or my content. Very frustrating.  I finally resorted to contacting the owner of the web host and they contacted the web owner and got it removed.

And speaking of watermarking, I used to just put my name or the name of my blog on my photos, but now I put the blog url so if my photo is posted anywhere else, people will know where it came from. It's a shame that we have to do that. It's a shame that people can't respect the property of others, whether it is jewelry locked inside your home, your car parked in a parking lot, or intellectual property posted on your own website.

In some of the articles I read, the writers complain that Pinterest loads a full size photo of the item rather than a snap shot like Google. That may have been true about Google at the time they wrote the articles, but now an image search on Google results in the page of snapshots, and clicking on a snapshot brings up the full size photo. Someone can save the picture right there, or with another click, go on to the website. I agree with those writers that it would benefit Pinterest, Google, and bloggers if Pinterest and Google only loaded a snapshot which, when clicked, brought the user to the blog of the original photo. It would leave little doubt where the photo originated, give all parties a chance to make money from the clicks, and encourage the pinner to read the copyright policy of the photo owner.

Pinterest does seem to be making some positive changes since I joined a year ago. At that time, when I pinned from someone's board, there was no attribution information, and now that comes with the repin. And it comes with the original pin too. Since I haven't made any pins directly from a website because I never downloaded the pin grabber, I don't know if it's always been that way or not. As a test, I found a couple of my pinned photos linked to google instead of my blog. I emailed Pinterest and asked them to take the photos down, citing the link on my blog, the fact that the pinned photo had my blog name on it, and gave them my name and my blog name. Within thirty minutes I had a response from Pinterest. Unfortunately, they wanted a lot more information from me before they would remove the photos. Another blogger told me that when she finds her photo pinned without a link back to her blog, she pins a comment to the pinned photo giving the correct link. As another test, I pinned a comment to one of my pinned photos, and while that will work to notify anyone seeing the comment, it will not follow if the photo is repinned, nor does it notify the original pinner, so in my opinion, it does little good. I think if you want your photos to be linked to you, you need to contact Pinterest when you find one that is not linked correctly. You'll find everything you need for that here at their Copyright Policy page. They do act on the requests quickly when all the required information is sent. Indulgy, however, tends to ignore the requests entirely when sent by email.

So for me, these questions remain: what decision do I make about pinning and will it adversely affect anyone else?  1 Corinthians 8:9 says "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling  block to the weak."

The verse is talking about eating food that was sacrificed to idols, which the Christian knows is not a true sacrifice, but a new Christian would not understand that difference.  In the same way, my freedom to allow people to ignore my right to own my photo may cause them to ignore the rights of others who do want to remain sole owners of their photo.  That is my moral dilemma.

I can revise my policy and ask that people link back as other blogs do, though if they didn't read it before, they're not going to read it now. I can add a Pin it button to each photo to make it easy for people to copy the photo to their Pinterest and increasing the odds that photos will be linked back. Or I can add code to my blog to disable the Pinterest image grabber.

The choice that seems right for me is to add a Pin it button to photos with a prominent copyright notice. At this time, I don't make any money from visits to my blog and probably never will. Like I said before, I did put the photos on my blog to show people, and it is flattering when people like them. If I have something that I would like to use for my own profit, I simply won't post it to my blog. I'm sorry if that is a disappointment to people who are fighting against copyright infringement and I do wish you well. I'm just too busy and too tired to tilt at windmills.  The best I can do is report the pins which aren't linked back and put a strike against the pinner.


If you are going to pin, pin responsibly:

  • Pin from the source
  • Pin with permission
  • Respect the rights of the copyright owner

If you don't want to be pinned, or don't want your photo linked to another's blog, beware:

Some big name bloggers feature other bloggers and put a pin under the other blogger's photo, which means the pinned photo is then linked to the big name blogger's blog.  (Yes, I tested them to see what happened)

Some linky parties have a notice to the effect that whoever links agrees to allow their photo to be pinned by others.  (I didn't check those to see whose blog they linked.)


Other links you might be interested in:

How to add code to add to your website to keep your images from being pinned.

How to add a Pin It button to your blog.

Pinterest Alternatives


Edited March 18, 2013 to add: I just added a pin button to my headboard bench and was shocked to see that it has been pinned 64,000 times, four times the hits I am getting from Pinterest from all my pinned projects. So, yes, I do think pin sites are hurting more than helping.



  1. Hi Marti. Goodness, I've never given Pinterest that much thought, but after reading your article, clearly it deserve the thought you've given it. It is irritating to find your photos on another website with no link back to your blog. I found several of my February calendar photos on another blog, and they even included my file for downloading, but they never mentioned my blog or provided a link. That post represented many, many hours on my part. Thankfully my blog name is on all the photos, but I don't know why you would take the time to search for my blog when you already have all the information you need at your fingertips. That said, Pinterest may not have had anything to do with it, except that the person who stole my content probably first spotted it there, as I get more traffic to my blog from Pinterest than anywhere else. I do put my blog name in the title of every photo so that if it gets pinned, that information will automatically show up in Pinterest, but many pinners just delete it and put their own text in there. It's a dilemma for sure. Thanks for your detailed article. I'll be checking out the links to read more. Hope you're having a great weekend.


    1. If it were me, I'd contact that other blog and have your work removed, and if they aren't willing to do that, report them to blogger. They are using your photos and download to divert traffic from your blog. As a small blogger, I never thought I would have to worry about it, but copying and pinning photos is a problem for everyone.

  2. A very thought filled post on some things I'd not given a lot of thought too. I've joined Pinterest, but haven't done much with it, now I probably won't. Some of my pictures show up there, but as far as I can tell, no one is selling anything with them. I've tried to be very responsible on my blog and give credit to designers and sources for the quilts I make from patterns, but all that will be lost if someone repins an image. I do have a statement on my blog that says you need to ask permission to use one of my photos, I guess no one reads it.

    1. I have always been one to follow the rules, or thought I was. I really didn't know about the attribution for photos in the public domain, but I linked back to sources when I quoted anyone. And you are right, if a borrowed photo is pinned from another blog, the link to the source is lost.

      I know morally that I should stand up for what is right. Yet fighting against it is like plugging a dam with a million leaks. Disney has been very successful policing it's products but a quick search of etsy and ebay show that people are still copying them. And I certainly don't have Disney's clout or the time of their staff.

      I think the issue of money for most bloggers comes from who receives the advertising traffic for the photos, not so much that people try to sell the photos of others or use the photo in an advertisement like that one blogger. Again, that doesn't seem to affect me because I don't have that much traffic. I do wonder if I would have more if someone had to click through to my blog to see the full sized photo.

  3. I always "pin" from the source rather than "repin." I think that Pinterest should remove the "repin" button and only allow pinning from the original source. Perhaps that will come in time, but until then, I will continue to track down the original source for all of my pins.

    1. That's a great idea Nancy, and one I hope Pinterest and the others implement.

  4. I apologize if I have pinned from your site. I confess that I don't read every part of everyone's blog so I didn't think to get permission. That's not the full truth. When I first started pinning, I asked, but then I got lazy and stopped asking. I thought that as long as it went back to the original site it was okay to pin.

  5. I agree with Debbie, I've never thought much about Pinterest. I'm guilty of both pinning and repinning, and I occasionally find my pins on the web. I do put the name on my pictures but never thought more about it. I don't mind people pinning my projects for inspiration for their homes (hence I have a Pin it button automatically with every post) but I would have a hard time having it posted on someone else's blog as their own.

  6. I was going to join Pinterest but I didn't like the conditions so I never did. This has been a great read, it took me a while to go through it all, and to check out the links, but I find it all so interesting. While I don't make money from sponsors on my blog, I do sell the things I make so I would prefer the ones I don't give detailed explanations for, that people not pin them and then make them to sell. I don't mind if they copy and make their own for themselves, but if they are sold somewhere that is not fair because they are my own designs and that means I have lost a sale.

    1. That's become a real problem. The craft forums I visit regularly discuss how their new ideas are copied, often by other vendors who have booths at the same venues. I've seen some designs similar to yours before and wondered if they saw yours of if they just happened to think of the same thing. I know that happens too. Great minds and all that.

  7. There are scrapper sites that place images from art sites on their site with Pinit buttons. I many cases, the artist sites have the nopin code installed......so the scraper sites are enabling people to bypass the code and encouraging copyright infringement. These images do not link to the artist, but to the scraper site that makes money from ads.

    Also, when a pin is repined the link can be edited to lead to another site

    1. That's why we need to educate the pinning public. What I'm finding is that the site that was pinned from doesn't even get all the traffic from the pin. The Pinterest widget showed my one photo had 64K pins, and that doesn't include repins. I don't begin to get 1/4 hits from the 64K. Pinterest is not doing us, the owners of the photos, any favors. They are the ones who are benefitting. But the angry voices aren't going to stop them, and there aren't enough voices with clout. Users who place photos online need to diligently file complaints when their photos are used without permission or without the allowed links. When millions of users file complaints daily, become a thorn in their sides, they then will have change, in my opinion.

  8. Agree with bhphotos, and some of the scraper sites use your work to link to porn and/or infect your computers. Many scraper sites I've found have a Pinterest account. That's not free advertising for the owner of the image, and there can be damages to the artist because of these infringements. Every repin exacerbates the damage.

    1. I don't disagree. I do think artists are the ones who lose the most. See my reply above, as it applies to your comment too. I am sympathetic. But I also know that I don't have the resources to stay on top of the infringements. The best I can do is educate and apply pressure.

  9. Great post Marti--there are tons of new people joining pinterest ever day and they are sometimes clueless. All they would have to do is read the help page.
    I see so much traffic coming from pinterest, that I won't complain. If someone pins my "bench" that is watermarked, and someone really wants to know how to build that bench, they will find me through my watermark.
    Even before pinterest, many photos were stolen and misused. We can't stop it, sad to say.


  10. Hi Marti,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment on my copyright infringement post. I have read this post of yours and I appreciate the care, time and thought you have put into writing it and thinking about this issue. I have a complex relationship with Pinterest. I was an early user and then took a long break. I started pinning again taking great care to only pin original content or re-pin from trusted sources who do so and put credit information in the pin description.

    As a content creator, I am happy to have my work pinned these days IF it is pinned directly from my website or shop and credited. Pinterest is an enormous source of traffic. Whether it results in sales directly, I haven't been tracking that yet. I quit chasing down my Loads of Ranunculus photograph last fall when I found out about my corporate infringement. Suddenly a pin or blog post, numerous as they may be, paled in comparison to multi-billion dollar companies making a profit from the same photograph without my permission or compensation.

    It is a wild ride as far as protecting our IP on the internet. That's for sure!


Your comments make my day, and I look forward to visiting your blog too so please put your link in the slot. I can't comment on Google Plus or Discus though.