Pinning Copyright Violations on Pinterest

Advertising Law

Does Pinterest encourage copyright violations?

According to a new lawsuit filed in California federal court by an award-winning professional photographer, the answer is yes. Harold Davis accused the popular social media platform of encouraging the “wholesale, unauthorized copying of photographs.”

Launched in 2010, Pinterest claims more than 300 million active users worldwide and describes itself as a “visual discovery platform,” where users “pin” images to their boards, Davis told the court. While some of the images are captured personally by the individual Pinterest users, the images “are copied by Pinterest users from sources on the Internet,” he added.

“Pinterest’s platform was built on the idea of sharing and collecting digital objects,” the complaint alleged. “Simply put, Pinterest provides a mechanism for people to violate the copyright rights of others.”

Pinterest directs users to existing “pins” and “boards” based on their searches and prior activities, and sends frequent emails with previously “pinned” images Pinterest thinks will encourage users to engage with the platform, according to the complaint.

Davis alleged that at least ten of his copyrighted images (including “Dragonfly Wing” and “Sunflowers and Friends”), which he had initially uploaded to Flickr, have been reproduced on Pinterest without his permission. Further, he maintained that Pinterest copied and distributed these photographs via emails with subject lines such as “We found some fresh Pins for you” and “Initial Research for Practical Photography, bloemen and 12 other boards like yours.”

In seeking relief based on both direct and contributory infringement, Davis argued that Pinterest does not qualify for protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) because Pinterest “initiated the copying, posting, and distribution” of his photographs, and not at the direction of anyone else. 

The action seeks to halt the defendant from copying and republishing Davis’ copyrighted photographs as well as actual and/or statutory damages.

To read the complaint in Davis v. Pinterest, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: Davis’ action against Pinterest is unsettling for two reasons. Davis claims that Pinterest (1) is contributorily liable for copyright infringement because it “knowingly made available” his copyrighted photographs to Pinterest users and (2) is directly liable for sending emails with pinned images to other users to encourage them to visit the Pinterest platform, and neither of these claims is subject to safe harbor protection under the DMCA. This lawsuit will be closely watched by the Internet community, as it directly impacts Pinterest’s business model and potentially affects other social media platforms that rely on user-generated content.