Say you come across a gorgeous picture of Michelle Obama’s latest dress, and you want to remember it next time you’re in the market for a fancy get-up. You pin it to your DRESSES!!! board on Pinterest. There are, potentially, some copyright issues there.

Someone took that picture, and you didn’t pay that person for its use. And while that wouldn’t be a problem if you had torn that photo out of a magazine and posted it on your physical bedroom wall, instead, you’ve posted it on your publicly accessible internet wall. You’re running into more complicated legal questions—including the possibility that Pinterest is going to make a profit off of the photo you just distributed. 

At the end of October, Pinterest struck up a partnership with the digital photo company Getty Images that could help address some of the structural issues of running a social media company with user-contributed content. Pinterest will pay a fee for Getty’s metadata, which, in theory, will help improve the ways in which Pinterest users can search for and find more delightful pictures. On Getty’s side, the fee will provide some compensation to the photographers in the company’s network.

During its 18 years in business, Getty has worked out partnerships with more traditional media companies, like National Geographic and CNN, and with user-generated media companies, like Flickr. But the company has also aggressively gone after online copyright infringement. CJR sat down with Getty Images’ senior VP and general counsel, John Lapham, to talk about how the company’s thinking about copyright has developed and changed as images have sprawled over the Web.

What put Pinterest on your radar? How did your thinking about that company and that type of photo use evolve?

It’s just my natural love of crafting.

No, I mean, for us, it was a company that was soaring in popularity, but still young. And so it seemed like it was a great opportunity to work with them to help their product develop in a way where they could still be wildly popular and still have a super active user base, but at the same time, evolve in a way that respected other people’s intellectual property. 

What does the fee they’re paying you actually cover? 

It’s not a licensing arrangement. They’re paying for the metadata and the re-attribution of the imagery. Right now, you might find a Getty Image on their site that a user right-clicked from the Getty Images website itself, or that they might have right-clicked from MarthaStewart.com. A lot of times, by the time the imagery got to Pinterest, it was stripped of its metadata, and there was no attribution for the source. 

So, this gives us a chance to take advantage of our image search technology, find out where our images are being used and then reattach the metadata and provide the attribution for the content.

It sounds to me like you’ve created a new type of revenue stream.

It’s definitely a new type of revenue stream. What we’re trying to do right now is to take advantage of what’s already happening. And what’s happening and what will continue to happen is that people are going to use lots and lots of imagery, and there are going to be news ways to use it. And our traditional models of having that paid for and giving permissions wasn’t going to work for a site like Pinterest.

That seems like a different approach than the one you’ve gotten some criticism for—identifying instances of copyright infringement and then sending people letters saying, “You’re using our stuff, and you need to pay us for it.” How much are you still doing of that? 

We have an unauthorized use program that goes out and, using our image search technology, finds instances where our images have been used for a commercial purpose, without permission. We’ll continue to do that. Part of that is that we have an obligation to our contributors to go find instances where their images are being used and they’re not being paid. There are a lot of times where it’s our contributors bringing those instances to our attention.

What we’re actively working on is: we’ve had a one-size-fits-all approach to the program, and there are times when that hasn’t come across very well to people. And we’re trying to delineate now between people who are customers or should be customers because they do now and they want to continue being active users of imagery, and people who are just plain taking stuff on purpose, without paying for it. 

Getty deals with all sorts of media companies: sites like Pinterest with user contributions, small websites that might buy one image, big news organizations. How do you sort through all these potential customers?

We have customers that range from individual bloggers to Fortune 50 companies. Part of it is, we think about it through our technology team, rather than just through our creative team. If we have a social-media partner that wants to work on metadata and attribution, as opposed to licensing, and we have another customer that’s wanting to receive all of today’s news, sports, and entertainment content in real-time, we have to meet the needs of both those customers.

It’s part of…to answer a question you didn’t ask…my big pet peeve about people describing these two supposed camps of technology or copyright. And that’s totally artificial. There’s not supposed to some sort of holy war between technology and content. They have to work together. And you look at the way that they schedule Congressional hearings on copyright, where they’ll have a technology day and a content day. For Getty, we could have shown up on either day.

Right, you also bought PicScout [a company which searches the Web and identifies images] in 2011. How’s that changed what you’re able to do?

There’s two branches. It permitted much more scalable copyright enforcement. 
We can go out and crawl the Web and find images being used without permission and report those out. The other thing is that it would have been difficult to go to a company like Pinterest that’s using and swapping millions and millions of pictures and tell them what their use of our imagery looks like. Now we can.

How do conversations like that go? 

We can say to them, you have a tremendous amount of Getty content on your site—as much as 3 to 4 percent of their total content might be Getty Images content. It allows us to tell them: Everything from pictures of pumpkin pies and kittens to pictures of red carpet events are being actively used on your site. What would you like to do about that? How can we help you use our imagery in a way that’s good for us and good for you? 

Companies that I think are more progressive on how they want to engage their own customers and their own technological capabilities want to work with us. They’d rather have it be easier for their customers to use as much great content as they can. 

Companies that are driven more by legal fear than by business realities want to go a DMCA [Digital Millenium Copyright Act] route. But that can be fairly disruptive for a company’s users to suddenly find tens or hundreds of takedowns coming. That causes confusions for customers and disruptions on their site. It’s a very 1991 way of approaching things, in my view.

I’m biased, given that we represent content, but I think people ought to make it easier for their users to use content, rather than to continue to fight the inevitable, and the inevitable is that people are going to continue to use more imagery.

So, with the Pinterest partnership, you’re talking to each other as tech companies. 

Absolutely. If we were a picture library, there was nothing we could have done with Pinterest to make it work with them or for them. Approaching Pinterest with a technology solution meant that we were able to work with them, instead of against them, and to be able to give them content in a way that didn’t disrupt their users and in fact enhanced their user experience. It allows them to grow, and it allows our contributors to get fair compensation.

But this is what I come back to—Getty contributors are not being compensated like they normally would, with a licensing fee. 

They’re not being compensated in a normal way. But what’s a normal way? What’s normal about the way people consume imagery today compared to 24 months ago? I started at Getty Images 13 years ago. Then, if you could see one image from the first half of a basketball game during the second half, it was extraordinary. Now when people go to their favorite site, whether it’s CBS Sports, or SI.com, or ESPN.com, if you can’t see not only a still photo gallery but a video clip of what you just saw on television, you’re irritated. 

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

 

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications.