A minor brouhaha this week involving some Archiver’s stores’ use of content from Pinterest has once again highlighted some of the challenges for companies of navigating the internet’s social sharing websites and trends.
The story starts very simply: Archiver’s curates Pinterest boards that combine their own in-house content with content pinned from elsewhere. They apparently wanted to highlight their use of Pinterest to interact with their customers, and so they decided to encourage their stores to put their in-house Pinterest content on display in stores with an “As Seen On Pinterest” label on it. Sounds straightforward.
What actually happened was a bit different, however. Several high profile industry designers discovered that their work was on display in one of the stores, without their permission, with the Pinterest label on it.
So what happened? How did a program seemingly designed to use in-house content to promote the Archiver’s Pinterest account go so far off track? The answer is pretty simple, and is a familiar theme to anyone creating content on the internet: lack of intellectual property law knowledge.
Marketing programs like this are designed at the corporate level and then implemented at the store level by the company’s “boots on the ground”. Perhaps instructions about how to execute the program were misunderstood. But they could not have been misunderstood in a way that had these results if the people on the receiving end of them understood the social sharing platform in question and IP laws.
We have not historically placed a lot of value on either IP law or educating people about it. I remember in college in the early 1990′s having to go to Kinko’s to buy “course packets” of photocopied materials assembled by professors, until lawsuits put a stop to that practice. An entire generation grew up sharing “mix tapes” and copying tapes to share with friends, or recording songs off of the radio. It wasn’t that we didn’t care that it was illegal – it was that we weren’t taught that it was illegal in the first place. And no one seemed to care except in the rare instance (like the course packets).
Fast forward to the internet age, and now we are all content creators and sharing on the internet it seems. And we are surrounded by what seems like freely available content for our use. How do we know what we can and cannot do with it? We were never taught IP law, and yet it is suddenly central to our day to day lives in ways we could never have imagined.
It’s not easy to know what you are allowed to do with that item you are looking at on your screen.
For businesses, this creates special dilemmas since a business can end up responsible for infractions committed by their employees on their behalf. So how much do you assume that your employees know about IP law? The safest answer is probably – assume nothing. This means taking on the burden of educating your employees if they do anything in their job that could be related to intellectual property (which is hard to avoid these days). It means expense, and extra time and effort – but it’s an investment that can be great insurance against the sort of PR issue that hit Archiver’s this week, or against the cost of copyright violation suits.
Long term, this is just another example of why as a society we need to think about educating our citizens on intellectual property the same way that we educate our kids about government, and the legal system, and the other things that they need to know about to be good citizens. Knowledge of intellectual property and how to handle it is becoming too central to our existence for everyone to not have basic education about it.