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Update: Josh Davis has a great take on this issue that only came to my attention after I wrote this.

Image sharing site Pinterest, with its kind-of-crazy, wild west copyright policy, is a great example of how, for some startups, it’s best to shoot first and ask questions later. Under the “safe harbor” provision of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, Pinterest isn’t really responsible for all the copyright-violating content that users post to Pinterest. The site has a system for flagging content that does, which puts Pinterest in compliance with the law and, at least in theory, on the side of rights holders.

But why, for example, has Pinterest failed to implement a straightforward system for recording the rights status of images its users post, as Flickr has? The answer is simple: By resolving the rights on an image after the fact, Pinterest creates a frictionless mechanism for sharing. Which is precisely why the site has taken off. 

Spend a few minutes using Pinterest, and in particular its bookmarklet, and you’ll recognize the work of some seriously talented UX designers. The sort who understand that what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. Funny thing is, Pinterest’s dodge on copyright is a part of that excellent UX.

A lot of what goes on Pinterest that’s a violation of copyright is probably OK in the eyes of many whose images are being appropriated. After all, because Pinterest includes a link back to the source of a piece of content, it’s already fifth in driving referral traffic to websites, and it’s even better at driving traffic to retailers. That traffic is a sort of in-kind payment to most sites for the use of their images, and it’s inarguable that Pinterest is a new use of that content that publishers probably couldn’t capture on their own. Whereas assigning rights to images wouldn’t just impede sharing on Pinterest – it might cause it to implode. The Internet masses aren’t suddenly going to become experts on fair use.

So while Pinterest is admitting on its own blog that it has a problem with copyright, the most likely outcome of this saga is not a Grooveshark-like end to Pinterest, but an admission by many publishers that they simply don’t care what anyone does with their images, as long as it helps drive users back to their sites.

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