Copyright is Not the Problem, You Are! – Skinny Artist

Copyright is Not the Problem, You Are!

Copyright is Not the Problem, You Are!

by: Cory Huff

Pinterest is upon us!

For some reason, the Internet decided to throw a giant fit over copyright over the last few weeks. It started (sort’ve) with this interesting blog post by a lawyer who tearfully deleted her Pinterest inspiration boards. Her post spread like wildfire, got picked up by a whole bunch of major blogs, and even garnered a personal response from the founder of Pinterest. Of course, her post isn’t the only one. There have been hundreds of articles written about Pinterest’s copyright issues.

Here’s the thing – this issue is not new. Pinterest is just the latest round of copyright and privacy issues on the Internet. The same thing has happened with Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, various blogs, and other online media. Remember burning CDs? My favorite example, however…

The Music Industry

In 1999, Napster rocked the music world by becoming the first highly successful file sharing site. Millions of people began using Napster to share files, and some of them were using Napster to illegally swap music. The music industry leaders freaked out and spent millions of dollars going after individuals who downloaded music, making examaples out of them. This led to countless ridiculous stories about children and elderly women being imprisoned and slapped with terrifyingly high fines.

This did nothing to curb the decline of the music industry. People continued to download music and share files with each other. The music industry spent millions more lobbying and got the Digital Millenium Copyright Act passed. Suddenly small websites were getting nailed for doing innocuous things like linking to another website that was illegally hosting a copy written song. It’s still going on, and it’s a legal nightmare.

In the mean while, along comes Steve Jobs and Apple. This next part is really important, so pay attention. It’s detailed in Jobs’ biography, and it’s just fascinating. While the music industry was busy arguing about who was at fault for declining revenues, and suing everyone, Apple invented iTunes and stole everyone’s lunch money. They found a way to get people to pay for what they had been doing illegally. While the music labels said it couldn’t be done, Apple went out and did it. They were looking for a solution, not a problem.

Copyright Will Not Make Your Career

Here’s the part where I explain why I’m talking about the music industry. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the art world is in a very similar place to where the music industry was back in 1999.

People are sharing images online – without your permission. It’s happening, whether you like it or not. Sure, it would be great if you could stop anyone who tries from profiting off of your work – but that’s not my point here.

There are some artists who don’t even worry about copyright. Check out painter Gwenn Seemel’s take on art careers without copyright law.

Sharing is What Makes the Internet Work

The Web gave people the ability to share images easily. That’s why there are thousands of image sharing sites like Flickr and SmugMug. People want to share images that excite and motivate them. Sharing is how the internet works. We link to things that we find interesting. We talk about it on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Personally, it’s one of the best things about the Web.

If I can find a piece of art that I like, I don’t just bookmark it. I want to subscribe to their blog, follow them on Twitter, and tell everyone else about their work. If the artist is smart, they’ve added some sharing buttons to each of their individual pieces. This is how people build buzz about what they do. It’s how the Internet has changed things.

Where’s the Disruption?

You can protect your work if it’s that important. Add a watermark to your images. Reduce the resolution to 75 dpi. But don’t disable right clicks. That’s just annoying (and you can just take a screenshot anyway).

There are several companies that are doing very innovative things with art on the Internet. is interesting. ArtSumo is surfacing art from obscure places. Artsicle lets you try art in your home before you buy it.

Technology is not the only way to disrupt a market. You can change the way that you sell art. One of the early bands to recognize the change in the way that that the music business was heading is Radiohead. They began offering their music as a pay what you will download from their own website. They did an end run around their music label and it worked.

What will you do? Can you start selling directly to collectors? Will you find an innovative way to offer prints? Build your own social networks built around your art?

I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

Image courtesy of Horia Varlan

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About the Author

Cory Huff runs, where he teaches artists how to sell art online and dispel the myth of the starving artist.

Thanks for this post – I had a similar reaction to the Pinterest flap. The internet has definitely changed everything, for better or for worse. If you don’t want the risk you would have to (try to) delete everything about you, destroy your computer and move into a cave somewhere. As the old saying goes, trying to control it is like trying to herd cats!


    I think you’re right Felicia, for better or for worse things are simply different now. I figure we can either try to ignore it and hide from it, or we can learn how to use it to our advantage.

    The sticking point here, for me at least, has always been that feeling of losing control of your work. It seems that we’ve become conflicted because we like all of the attention and the “viral” nature of sharing things on the internet, but at the same time we want to still control it — which just doesn’t work.

    I think our generation in particular is going to have to eventually come to terms with this and change our way of thinking. It’s not going to happen overnight and no one really knows where we are going to end up on the privacy/sharing spectrum, but if nothing else, it will give us something to talk about here ;)

Great article and I agree. I’m sure many large music acts like Radiohead are relaxed about illegal downloads as they can make it back on touring merchandise. With perhaps the exception of Rolf Harris and the late Nancy Kominsky this may not be available for most. Nevertheless I think visual artists should let their work go out there free and trust that people will always want to support art and feel legitimately connected to artists.

Incidentally as a child in the 70’s (in the UK) cassette recording the top 20 every Sunday night was an accepted ritual. We nearly all then spent our pocket money on singles and albums.

    Totally remember making mix tapes from the radio as a kid. Then I went out and bought every album I recorded.


    You’re exactly right David, I don’t think these young (click & burn) whippersnappers today understand just how much time and energy went into creating a really awesome cassette mixtape. Here in the States, I remember spending more than one Sunday afternoon hovering over my 80’s boombox listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 with my finger hovering over the record button and cursing every time he talked over a song’s introduction.

    Then if you were going to be super suave and present this artfully arranged mixtape to your significant other, you would literally spend hours trying to arrange the songs, edit out all of the commercials, and then redub it onto a second tape which usually ended up reducing the sound quality to just above the level of inaudible crap — but it’s the thought that counts right? :)

      Brilliantly put Drew and so true. It’s probably a bit of a guy thing.

      Freely available music and a reasonable tolerance of copyright infringement is probably what created millions (billions?) of passionate music lovers and consumers. The internet has switched me (and I’m sure many others) on to art in a way that galleries and museums have never done (or wanted to do).

I stopped posting to Pinterest after this whole mess.

The problem is not sharing my own images. I’m quite comfortable letting others use any of my own pictures just for the pleasure of sharing it around.

The problem for me is pinning other people’s stuff. I don’t feel right knowing that I am technically *claiming copyright* and giving Pinterest the right to sell that work.

    The argument that you’re claiming copyright doesn’t hold water. That legalese in Pinterest’s T&Cs would never hold up. I imagine you already share images on Facebook, Twitter and other places? It’s exactly the same as these other sites.

      The terms on Facebook and Twitter are not as ridiculous as Pinterest’s. They do not claim the right to sell. FB at least is also much better about reminding you to only upload your own photos. And no, I don’t upload photos to Twitter, FB or G+ that are not my own, not unless I have the express right to do so.

      Regardless of whether the terms of Pinterest are legal or not, I don’t appreciate a site that attempts to place the blame on me for bookmarking an image. I also don’t feel right about making the choice to pin content there on behalf of the copyright owner.

      You’re right, copyright is not the problem. Pinterest’s terms are the problem.

        Isn’t the right to sell about keeping the option open to sell the site as You Tube did to Google?

          They could easily sell the site without selling the actual images. When Flickr sold to Yahoo, they didn’t sell the images to them.

          This just goes to show how confusing the terms of service are!

          The right to sell is about selling content to make money. This isn’t a charitable “be nice to the homemakers” venture – this is a business which is hoping to make a lot of money.

          To do that they have to be able to USE THE CONTENT. It doesn’t matter how they do it – and those most obvious is via links to advertising – the fact remain that they can make money from the images pinned to the site.

          It should be noted that this site has already run into problem re skim links and the replacement of those associated with the site pinned to a link to a Pinterest account.

          In other words it shows the image full size (unlike the thumbnails on Google) and then skims off any associate fee earnings that the originator had to a new account where all the fee income goes to Pinterest. Unless the viewer goes to the original site (and where’s the incentive if they’ve already seen the full size image?) then the originator gets no extra traffic or income for their associate link.

          That to me showed the regard that the site owner has for the copyright and income streams of the originating site.

          There was an outcry and I understand it’s stopped – for now.

      Cory Huff – you’re completely missing the point.

      People choosing to share their own images on Facebook or Twitter is one thing

      OTHER PEOPLE choosing to share somebody else’s images (ie infringing the copyright owner’s right to decide when/where/how images are published) is quite another.

      Pinterest could be very successful if it stuck strictly to people only being able to repin images which are originally pinned by the copyright holder. In principle that’s what their terms of service requires members to do.

      In practice their description of the site says something entirely different and is the reason why they are now getting a blizzard of ‘takedown notices’ from people who do NOT want their images pinned on Pinterest. (ie relating to those which have been pinned by people who don’t own them or don’t have a licence to reproduce them)

      The contradictions of the legalese and the marketing is also the reason why Pinterest will have a lot of trouble using a “safe harbor” defence – and IMO why those takedown notices are getting such a prompt response. I had images from six different domains taken down within minutes of my DMCA site-wide notices being served. It took a day to nail every last one but the response was very prompt.

      I’m waiting for the day that visual artists start serving invoices for reproduction fees rather than DMCA notices. Now there’s a nice little income-earner!

        Katherine, I totally agree with you.
        I haven’t even gone near Pinterest (and in all honesty, I only know what I’ve heard, not having the time to fully investigate it). I know that on FB, when you share, the link still stays with you, the creator. Hey, I say, share away! The problem is when people cut and paste, do screen shots and otherwise ‘scrape’ my images off their original sites to use as their own…and that has happened to me more than once.

        It’s not just about money; it’s about the changing and use, as you said, of the images. I did a picture of a laughing Jesus which I’ve sold now for over a decade, and I have had to do ‘cease and desists’ to people for using them in a less-than-savory way. I’m an artist, and yes, it is a personal thing. I’m not sure any of us wants our images twisted around and used in a way we haven’t agreed to. To be fair, some people don’t know this. But for a corporation, who should know better, to treat art and artists like this is not good.

        I know some people may do art as a hobby, but for me it is my livelihood. Please feel free to correct me regarding Pinterest’s stake in all of this. For now, my solution is 72 dpi with a © watermark and my name on it. Hey, then, share away.

You are the same person that wrote Dear Facebook, what’s the point?! aren’t you? – in which artists recount how little benefit they’ve got so far from sharing their artwork on Facebook. Or what perspective galleries might take on art shared online…….

I think what most artists and photographers object to is having their images ripped off their sites, stripped of meta data and all links back to who created them in the first place. (Have you tried clicking some of the repins on Pinterest?) It’s not really a recipe for success and getting your name known now is it?

The other thing that galls is other people making money off your images (eg via Google ads) once they’ve been stripped of associations with your website. There’s a complete industry out there which is producing splogs (spam blogs). That’s plain downright fraud in anybody’s book – and it devalues the art to boot. Why should artists not be concerned about this?

I agree there are plenty of different perspectives on what’s the best way forward. Given that NOBODY knows what the best answer is, isn’t it better to let everybody have their say…..

    Good point. Those splogs and scraper sites are a scourge but Google, at least, is on is on to them.

      Mainly the reason they disappear is because of efforts by owners who have got rather smarter at knowing how to identify. I know I did. It’s the sole reason my blog now runs with a short feed.

      Thank you Google for Google Alerts!


    Hi Katherine, I’m actually the one to blame for writing “Dear Facebook, what’s the point?”, not Cory, but you’re point is well taken. That particular article was primarily about the time and energy commitment that comes with getting involved in all of these new social media sites vs. the benefits artists have received from using them.

    I think what it comes down to is the fact that Pinterest (and other sites like it) is more interested in growing their business than they are in protecting the rights of these content producers. They realize that if they actually require anyone to prove their ownership of the material they are sharing, their growth would come to a screeching halt so instead they turn a blind eye and disavow any responsibility for anything that happens on their website.

    Unfortunately the burden then shifts to the individual artists to claim ownership and send DMCA takedown notices. Now should we as individual artists/writers/photographers/etc… be responsible for policing the internet for illegal uses of our content? Of course not, but until the screening technology catches up with the reality, we are stuck with these ridiculous Terms of Service from these online “social sharing” companies that think it’s okay to simply pass the blame and put the responsibility on us.

    As far as a solution to this piracy problem, you’re right, there isn’t a clear answer at the moment. As Cory noted in the article, the music industry went through all of this with Napster and other peer-to-peer sharing networks, just as the movie industry is dealing with now. The difference is now it’s personal. It’s not just some faceless music publisher or movie studio who is getting ripped off, it’s us!

    I think in the end, it’s not a matter of giving up completely on copyright and throwing your creative work to the wolves to do with it what they will. It’s about being able to share your work online, without completely losing control and having anyone to do anything they like with our work without our knowledge or permission. Now how exactly that’s going to happen, we can only wait and see….

      Thanks for the response Drew – and I totally agree with you particularly that last paragraph.

      The analogy I have in mind is that when Facebook screwed up in terms of changing how things worked the Facebook members revolted and let Zuckerburg know in no uncertain terms what they thought – and he listened and retrenchments were made. At present I know there’s a lot of people removing pins, deleting boards and deleting accounts. Maybe this new bloke will get round to noticing……..

      The thing that is clear about this site is the owner is interested in making money fast (hence the skimlinks debacle) and is not interested in the details of the copyright framework or listening to how he could make it a better site for everyone – which is mindful of the rights of other people. He’s had a chance to get the terms of service changed and he’s done precisely zippo to date.

      One thing we can be clear about is he will be wanting to monetise the site (because what he’s about is making money) and his regard for the rights of others seems to be pretty low on his list of priorities.

      Perhaps in due course he’ll learn about why it’s a good idea to respect the rights of other people the really expensive way – in the Courts. Unfortunately he will try to take quite a few Pinterest members who have breached the TOS with him when that happens.

Great post Cory.

There’s definitely too much time spent worrying about protecting copyright these days, and less time spent on creating great art!


I am a self-proclaimed artist. I took a picture of my dog and it is so cute, I want everybody to see it, so I posted it on some site on the web. Aaaaaggrrrh! Someone made a copy of it and reposted it without my permission and without all the credits which are due to me! It is my dog and it is my camera! You people do not have any respect for the wonderful things I do. You are supposed to say it is a nice dog and that I am a wonderful artist. You rip me off and I do not get a penny for my work! All of you people are pirates and crooks! There are laws against that and I’m gonna take you down. Your illegal posts will be deleted and if you do it again the DCMA will shut down your whole site. You will be sorry you dared meddled with my copyrights. You are going to pay for that and you are going to jail.

I am a chef and I make my own recipes. I claim copyrights on my work because I do not want anybody to copy what I do. Should I serve notice to my customers that the meal they pay for does not belong to them as any attempt to copy it would infringe on my copyrights?

I am a shoemaker and I make lots of original designs. My work is so good that competitors are plagiarizing it. They make nearly exact copies and increase their sales using my original ideas. What should I do to stop them from stealing from me?

I am an architect and I design buildings. I claim intellectual property on everything I draw and rightly so. It is my designs and my ideas. People should know that I retain property on their houses and that they are not allowed to make modifications to the work that belongs to me.

I write songs, it is a natural talent. Yesterday I heard somebody whistling one of them. Now this is an outrage! He clearly appropriated it and deformed it without giving me due respect for my composition. I am mad as hell at him and I will denounce him to the RIAA – Recording Industry Association of America – which will send his watchdogs after him. That will teach him to stop infringing on my copyrights!

I am Alexander Graham Bell and I invented the telephone. In the 1870s, Elisha Gray designed a device that could transmit speech electrically and also called it the telephone. We both rushed our respective designs to the patent office within hours of each other, I patented my telephone first. Elisha Gray entered into a famous legal battle over the invention and I won. Did Elisha Gray copy my work or did I copy his? Nobody knows. It doesn’t matter, I own the copyrights and he doesn’t.

You see, that’s the whole point of copyright, it must be registered to be valid. If it is not then all your famed intellectual prowess falls into public domain. It is easy to let your wallet laying around in a public place and accuse everybody else of being thieves. Copyrights have to be registered to be valid and negligence to do so make you lose these rights.

Claiming copyright ownership without registration is Elisha Gray claiming to be the inventor of the telephone even if all is work is legitimate.

What are the most top scare words of the Internet? Pirates, terrorists and copyrights (some countries without terrorists like Canada calls its own citizens pedophiles instead). Make sure you are clean because they are going to get you. Don’t forget to accuse everybody else, trending worldwide.

    You are very obviously not familiar with the Berne Convention and copyright law in other countries.

    Nobody in the UK has to claim copyright – because we get it as soon as we create it. All I need is the evidence that I created my image first. Which is why all visual artists keep photographic evidence of our images.

    We have the raw data – with the dates – and the copycats do not.

    I’ve never ever had any problems having images removed from any site which has posted them without my permission – and I’ve never ever spent a penny on legal fees.

Danielle Davis

I have to agree with what Drew said above. At this point its a work in progress and unfortunately sites have no problem at this point seeing their users as a benefit to their business before actually providing a solid service to them. Artists can only make choices that balance with their particular goals and navigate one step at a time until a solid way to get both traffic and avoid infringement happen.

There are clear protections under the law that upon creation your work is copyrighted to you in the United States. An actual govt. registration isnt a legal reqirement to give a copyright to an artist, but it is a much more clear defintion if you think you are going to find your work stolen in such a way where you’d go to court. Watermarking your images when putting them on a third party site is generally good enough proof and also a way to be sure your work is credited when its shared if thats one’s main concern. Like I said though, I agree with Drew…its still a work in progress.

For those artists actually looking to copyright their works, forms can be found at for various arts.


    Thanks Danielle for sharing the link. I think there does seem to be a lot of misinformation out there about what is copyrighted, and perhaps even more importantly, where exactly that line is between fair use and copyright infringement. Do I personally object if someone pins us on Pinterest or uses an excerpt of our content on their website. Absolutely not, as long as they only say good things and they spell my name right ;)

    My point here is that it’s not always so easy to decide what is and is not okay. Sure legally, it’s far more black and white about what you can and can’t do with other people’s content online, but then again there’s a reason (actually a lot of reasons) that lawyers aren’t more popular on Twitter and Facebook. I think what it comes down to is that we want people to share our stuff online, but we just don’t want to get ripped off in the process.

    For example, in order to create this year’s 21 Artists to Watch post, I admit that I “borrowed” quotes from your website and even swiped your avatar off of Twitter. Now technically I didn’t ask permission to do this from you or any of the other artists on this list (which would have clearly ruined the surprise) but I did it anyway. My only justification (legal or otherwise) to do this was the question “Would I be okay if someone did this to me?” In this particular instance the answer was “yes”.

    So where do we draw that line?

    It’s not always easy to see, but I have a feeling that we’ll know it when we see it. My general rule of thumb is that if you’re doing it to help someone else, it’s probably okay. If you’re doing it to help yourself, it’s probably not.

When I hear people fretting about online art copyright violation I just shrug my shoulders, Similar to the time-honored tradition of ‘recording off the radio’ it is no great feat to download and print any image off the net. Sure, an artist is free to stick in a (usually ugly, cheap, paranoid-looking) watermark or reduce the image to low resolution so it’s basically un-viewable. But that does not exactly enrich the viewing experience.
Just imagine your wonderful artwork being published in a glossy magazine.
What will prevent a reader from plopping it into a scanner or copier? Not a darn thing.
How about taking advantage of the ability to share artwork worldwide for free without having to convince an editorial board of its merit?
THAT is the whole point…freedom to post and share as an organic process.
I make zero money directly online, but have fueled the growth of both my bricks and mortar gallery as well as my commissioned and personal art career through the social networking sites, and that is perfectly awesome in my books. Put it this way, nobody is going to get rich ripping off my artwork online, but I am prospering very nicely as a working artist while taking advantage of the golden opportunities of 21st century networking!

Do you think you’d think the same way if you were a photographer?

Hey Drew,
I appreciate your comments. I’ll admit to not having time to read all the preceding comments, so if I repeat I apologize. I think our society is at odds with itself at the moment. On one hand we have control issues seemingly become the norm from the government, to human resources, to how quickly we sue one another. Simultaneously, we have the exponential growth of all things net minded – and online behavior is forcing us to address many our inherent attitudes: is this really mine, can we share, will I do better if I am part of a community, is the lone ranger really American, etc.
Watermarking is a good idea – and I will say it sure is ugly. :-)

Like you, I find that having the chance to download great pics causes me to visit their site, and often do more once I am there. Seems a good tool to me.

Lastly and maybe controversially, although as artists we value our self expression and uniqueness – honestly, everything we express is a synergy of all that has been given to us – either visually, in stories, poems, songs – think of how many artists use music when they work – to inspire them. Abundance is ours – fighting for it only makes us cringe, become tight, and miss the bigger picture.

Having said all that – please honor every artist with appreciation for the cost of the supplies (HOLY COW!) and the magic they invest in our lives with their energy and talent. PS – LOVE LOVE LOVE the pic in your post! So true.


    Thanks! I think you’re right that when we start spending all of this time and energy trying to protect and wall off what is rightfully ours, we begin separating ourselves into ‘us vs. them’ rather than seeing ourselves draw from the same collective pool of creativity that we all share.

    Having said that, it’s pretty easy to talk about peace, love, and sharing when it’s not your creative work that’s being ripped off by some internet parasite. As you say there is a fine line here. I don’t know too many artists who get worked up by someone “borrowing” their image to put on their blog or share on Facebook even though it may go against the letter of the law. This is what I think this whole Pinterest debate is about. Most artists don’t care if people share their creative work online as long as they are credited, what I think they object to, is the fact that Pinterest is clearly interested in making money off all of this content down the road (I don’t think they even know at this point how this would actually happen) and that’s what I have a problem with….

      Your evidence for this “most artists” statement is………? (as in Most artists don’t care if people share their creative work online as long as they are credited)

      I could make a directly contrary statement about “most artists….” based on the ones I know.

      The point is NOBODY can make decisions on behalf of other people. The ONLY people who can decide what happens to their art and how it is shared is the person themselves. The reason that it matters is that while some may only ‘take an inch’ others will ‘take a mile’.

      All anybody needs tp do is ask the artist. It’s quite simple. It just requires a bit of effort!


Aww, by the headline I thought this was going to be an open letter to Bob Iger.

I love this article and posted it to our Facebook page at

About 3 months ago my partner and I formed Art Storm, LLC with the very intention of upsetting the apple cart of the art world. We’re not quite there yet but let’s see if you know who we are a year from now….

    Thanks for sharing the post Fred and here’s to an awesome 2014!

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