What can Michael Yang do for Pinterest?

What can a top lawyer do when his client is mostly at fault?

Ever since Pintrest sent me an invite to their social bookmarking website, I have not pinned anything. You can visit my board and follow me although I doubt you will find me sharing anything for a while. Pintrest’s copyright terms are shaky at best; the social media site (whose growth rate is much higher than Facebooks growth rate when Facebook was its age) is not only unclear about its copyright terms, but also appears to be on the wrong side of the legal court right now.

So what is their solution? Pintrest raised $100 million last month and has now stolen one of Google’s top legal advisors. Frankly, I have no idea if the two are connected, but I can tell you this: Google’s Superman, Michael Yang, now works for Pintrest.

Michael Yang, Pintrest's legal and PR headWhat does Pintrest expect from Mr Yang?

That is right, this is in fact a major question that has been bothering me since the transfer. If you know Google well enough, nobody need tell you who Michael Yang is. In short, if it weren’t for Yang, Google would be in a soup in a huge number of cases by now (notably since 2010,) especially in their ridiculous Chrome case — the one where Google’s terms declared anything you typed into Chrome is theirs by copyright, remember?

For the record, I am actually typing this in Chrome and that is because this copyright issue has long been tackled. And who else tackled it but Michael Yang?

Mr Yang is the man behind the solutions Google gave to its privacy problems that arose as a result of the late Google Buzz. And this year, when Google changed its privacy policy, Yang was the one who convinced a host of US congressmen that the company’s cross-referencing of user data is not a threat to their privacy; and the list goes on.

He was head of a 200-strong team of lawyers and Google called him their deputy general counsel. We will simply call him their legal superman.

Kryptonite, Superman’s weakness. Is copyright Pintrest’s?

So that is agreed upon, Yang is Superman; but what can even Michael Yang do when a company has indeed infringed copyrights?

With Google it was mostly a matter of convincing the masses, the congressmen, several lawyers and making sure they knew Google was on the right side of the copyright and privacy laws. But with Pintrest, there is a whole pinboard of copyright-infringed material right before your screen and it would hardly help to say you did not mean to infringe anybody’s copyright?

You put up a picture, somebody pins it. Does that mean they stole the picture and copyright from you? Or does that mean they borrowed it? If it is the latter, did they ask your permission to borrow/pin it before they actually did so? If not, does that not amount to stealing it? And if you are convinced it will give you traffic, (which your email, Google+ or Facebook can also do, for that matter,) does it mean (now that the content is on Pintrest) that Pintrest owns your content? The catch is, Pintrest does not make that clear.

And that in turn means I can sue, you can sue, Fortune 500 companies can sue. And Michael Yang will address us all.

But take one step further and you will find scarier things. Pintrest, in a way, actually does talk about copyrights. It states that you are responsible for what you pin, and that you need to have the owners explicit permission before doing so. In other words, blindly clicking the pin button is not the end of it; it is the beginning of severe legalities.

What does the future hold for Pintrest?

Pintrest and copyright

That said, if you did do all that and got into trouble because you pinned something you did not have the rights to pin, what can Pintrest’s legal and PR head possibly do about it? In fact, this is what photographer, Kirsten–, who luckily also happens to be a lawyer, found out when her legal eyes scanned Pintrest’s terms of use and she immediately deleted her account.

Clearly, Pintrest saw big troubles coming up ahead and quickly hired Mr Yang to help them out. They found out that a majority of what their users pinned was copyright content, pinned without permission from their owners. And, on the other hand, Mark Zuckerberg (who thinks he can defeat competition by buying them for millions) might want to re-think buying The Fancy, a Pintrest competitior because there does not seem to be another Michael Yang for him to hire out there.

Well, perhaps not everybody can hide behind the small print. As for what will really happen to Pintrest, only time will tell. My question is, given all this, was Michael Yang a worthy investment for Pintrest? I definitely do not doubt Mr Yang’s exceptional legal capabilities, but when the company you are working for (and its users) are openly at fault, where is the question of defending them to whatever small length? Pintrest would do better to carefully and correctly re-write their terms of usage and not equivocate when it comes to copyright issues.

What do you think? What can Yang do for Pintrest? Is Pintrest safe at all? And should Google have held on to Yang in the first place?

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