You Might Be Breaking the Law, and Tumblr Might Pay the Price

By Philip Bump , written on May 7, 2012

From The News Desk

How many times have you broken the law today? Ten? Twenty? None, you say?

Not so fast on that last one. After all, how much of an expert do you consider yourself to be on copyright law?

You know that you can’t film "The Avengers" in the theater and sell DVDs to your friends. I mean, you can – but you know that it’s illegal. You know that you can’t burn CDs and hand them out.

But what about that image you added to Pinterest? Or the quote you use for your Facebook status? That video you put on your Tumblr? Even if you’re not making money from those things, is it OK for you to use?

As sharing has evolved on the Web, the standards of acceptable practice have evolved, too, while falling into a predictable pattern. Content is shared; sharing is deemed an offense; sharing is restricted; a compromise is reached. The pattern flickers between poles from the “content wants to be free” to “piracy is a crime,” but generally ends up with the same solution: share a little, but you have to pay for the whole thing. You can share a snippet of a song or a scene from a movie (sometimes), but you’re not allowed to pass around the whole thing. Same deal with news articles and stories. Share a few paragraphs or bullet-point the content – but direct readers to read the whole article at the home of its creator.

Which brings us to photographs. There is no way to share a picture without sharing the entire thing – at least not in any meaningful way. You can share one photo from a gallery and link to the full gallery, but pictures, as the saying goes, are 1,000-word stories. You can’t simply cut 100 pixels off the top and share that snippet, even if you have the tools to do it. As social media sharing has increasingly encompassed imagery, the challenge of how images can and should be shared is just now getting to the “sharing is restricted” point of the cycle.

Today, a publisher of pornographic images announced a lawsuit against the blogging platform Tumblr, claiming that the company turned a blind eye to its users sharing copyrighted images on the network.

In most news articles about the Tumblr lawsuit, the word “finally” or “inevitable” has appeared. This fight has been anticipated, arriving now presumably because of maturation of both Tumblr and Pinterest.

Tumblr’s massive, rapid growth and simple system has made image-sharing far easier and more common. It’s worth noting, of course, that it’s Tumblr that’s the target of the lawsuit, not a particular user. There are three good reasons for this. First, shutting the tap at the source is a better strategy for stemming the flow of copyright infringement. Second, it’s easier to target one company than thousands of users. Third, other media industries’ efforts to target individual users have been an on-going black eye (for example).

Pinterest, meanwhile, was one of the fastest-growing communities of the year. Early in Pinterest’s rise, one lawyer described why she was stepping away from the platform, specifically citing how the service left users open to claims of copyright infringement. Tumblr and Pinterest allow users to post copyright images while letting the companies themselves point at users and shrug. It’s the same strategy used by another company about a decade ago: Napster.

This debate, like that over music and movies will be resolved between companies. Are you breaking the law? Maybe. But from a user perspective, there is generally safety in numbers. If your behavior on Tumblr and Pinterest is in line with the rest of the community – if you’re not, for example, scanning every page of the New Yorker and making a Tumblr gallery out of it – the odds that your behavior is singled out for a lawsuit is microscopic.

It’s like driving over the speed limit in a group of two million cars. The odds that the radar pings your back bumper and you get pulled over? Highly unlikely.

[Image Credit: Keith Allison]

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