Pinterest has become the latest social media darling. Pinterest is a growing social media site where users pin images (not necessarily their own) on their personal pinboard. A Pinterest user finds these images on someone else’s pinboard or uploads them from the Internet or their computer. Anyone who has played around with it can tell you that Pinterest is something amazingly interactive and fun. One can easily squander away hours perfecting one’s pinboard or going through others. It is addictive.

Businesses cannot get in on the fun like the average user however. In my opinion, this is one of those examples that although Pinterest is destined to attract ever-growing hoards of users, businesses will face dangers that restrict marketing on Pinterest.

Participating in Pinterest has a host of limitations that are rarely encountered with other social media. Most of them come from copyright protections. Yes, you can pin your own photos. Yes, you can pin images you have a license for. But after that, you are in a legal danger zone, even though most users do not act with caution. Let’s go through the issues a restaurant will confront on Pinterest:

Images are Content and Copyrighted

Images are content. People who own this content post them online in a certain approved context (a website normally). On Facebook or Twitter, you are sent to the source of content through a link. So although we call it sharing, it is technically recommending. Think about it like this: Facebook posts and tweets are doors to other webpages with content, while Pinterest is taking what is actually in the room (images) and moving it onto its own website. On Pinterest, a lot of of the material (if not most) is shared without consent or proper accreditation. This can be a huge problem for a restaurant or any other small business.

Unless the copyright holders designate the image as Creative Commons, the copyright holder controls where it appears online (the press gets limited exceptions). Very frequently, the copyright holder wants you to visit an authorized webpage and be exposed to more content or a message, whether business related or cultural. They may also not want to be associated with your business.

Business vs. Private Individuals

There is a certain leeway that individuals get that businesses don’t (this would have changed if the most recent legislation SOPA passed). Businesses are making a profit (even by indirect marketing), and the liability becomes much more serious. With a business, the expectation to identify, get approval and compensate the owner is greater. Don’t anticipate that Pinterest will be able to do this for you. YouTube, for example, pulls off copyrighted material as soon as they find out about it. Pinterest has a much more formidable task, as images are much easier to download to one’s computer. You’ll find that most times you need specific software (for the coding and website security system) to download a Flash video from the Internet to your computer. It isn’t easy to steal online videos. Images don’t work that way; you left click on the image and can save it (takes about 2 seconds and no software). Pinterest would need more policing than Youtube and doesn’t have a revenue flow to pay for this.

Handcuffed Because of Copyright Infringement (Direct & Indirect)

You can go afoul of Copyright law in two main ways on Pinterest. The direct method of violating copyright law is by taking content on the Internet that you do not own and uploading it on Pinterest. This no-no cannot be simply resolved by citing where you took it from. Pinterest in their terms requires that all material is owned by (or licensed to) the user. As mentioned before, Pinterest does not link immediately to the site. If you don’t own the content (and haven’t received approval), you are putting yourself in legal jeopardy. Note that Pinterest in their terms puts the responsibility on the user. Of course, you could ask for consent, but the owner probably would have put the image on Pinterest themselves if he/she wanted it to be shared.

Here is the other indirect way of a compromising situations on Pinterest. Say you just pin images already on Pinterest, not checking if the image is licensed or not. You cannot argue that you are protected because everyone else is doing it. You are a business so any usage of content is considered marketing and images you merely pin show up on your pinboard too. You are on Pinterest to help your business. The owner has not approved that his or her image’s association with your business nor been compensated for it. It is the same as the politicians who play pop music that wasn’t licensed to them. Many politicians were liable for tens of thousands of dollars in compensation.

You are not protected by Pinterest’s terms, and as a business, your argument that it is not marketing/profit-related is thin. You may be skeptical. Imagine this scenario: you own a pizzeria and you post your own restaurant photos on Pinterest. They look delicious. Your competitor sees these great photos of pizza that look similar to their own and pins them (whether knowingly or not). You wouldn’t let your competitor to put your photos on their website, so the same holds true for a pinboard.

A Steady Stream of Your Own Content

The only safe way to participate in Pinterest for a restaurant is by providing your own content. In fact, you are not really getting more out of Pinterest than you would out of Flickr (except the growing popularity), as you can’t take advantage of its most dynamic part, pinning content from various sources to convey a message or personality.

Essentially, it makes your small business a minor presence on Pinterest, unless you have phenomenal content. Additionally, you will probably have to post new content constantly. As the standards are significantly higher than Flickr, you will probably need access to someone with an artistic touch, who can take good photographs, create engaging messages, or make cool designs. It isn’t nearly as easy as it is for the average Pinterest user. But it is much better than hiring a lawyer.

Business on Pinterest

Pinterest is structured right now to become the Napster of Social Media, but it will be even worse if businesses get entangled in some of the practices on the service without exercising caution. On Pinterest, copyright infringement of photographs/images seems to be common (if not the predominant) practice. Unfortunately, this content is the source of much of the interest and energy. As a restaurant or small business without infinite resources, proceed carefully as the legal system has not sorted this out or offered any special protections. If you don’t, you put your business at risk.