Polyvore-ingenius or infringement

Stolen (pin) by Robin Cruz McGee
Stolen (pin) by Robin Cruz McGee

As an admitted geek,  I admire the basic concepts behind Polyvore.com, as stated on their “About” page:

Polyvore is a free, easy-to-use web-based application for mixing and matching images from anywhere on the web. It is also a vibrant community of creative and stylish people.

Polyvore lets you create sets composed of individual images using an easy to use, drag and drop editor. After you have created a set, you can publish and share it with your friends and the Polyvore community.

But my admiration ends where the copyright issues begin. 

Polyvore: ingenius or infringement?

It was brought to my attention by long-time EBSQer Aja that Polyvore was allowing its members to steal and essentially “mutlilate” images from a number of sites without permission via its proprietary “clipping” tool.  Apparently this was a huge issue with Etsy last year, and it’s become so again. They’ve also been stealing images from Flickr, and we’re not talking about Creative Commons images but ones that are explicitly marked all rights reserved.  A quick search revealed they were doing the same with images from EBSQart, RedBubble, Imagekind, CafePress, DeviantArt, and individual artist’s blogs and personal websites. We’re certain there are other art and photography sources we’ve missed.  Sometimes the images were used with some nod of attribution. We found many cases where they were not.  Also, we discovered that in many cases, the artists’ watermarks, which are generally used to keep others from reusing their work sans permission or proper attribution, were removed using Polyvore’s in-house editing tools.

According to Polyvore’s Terms of Service:

You shall be solely responsible for your own User Submissions and the consequences of posting or publishing them. In connection with User Submissions, you affirm, represent, and/or warrant that you own or have the necessary licenses, rights, consents, and permissions to use and authorize Polyvore to use all patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright or other proprietary rights in and to any and all User Submissions to enable inclusion and use of the User Submissions in the manner contemplated by the Website and these Terms of Service.


In connection with User Submissions, you further agree that you will not:

  1. submit material that is copyrighted, protected by trade secret or otherwise subject to third party proprietary rights, including privacy and publicity rights, unless you are the owner of such rights or have permission from their rightful owner to post the material and to grant Polyvore all of the license rights granted herein; (ii) publish falsehoods or misrepresentations that could damage Polyvore or any third party;

When we contacted Polyvore about all of the images derived from the EBSQart website and asked them to remove all source images, derivative images, and block our domain from being “clipped” again, they apologized and said they took care of it. A later search of their site revealed that while the  source images were gone, the derivative items remained fully intact on their site without any attribution to the original artists or works of art  until another complaint was filed. We hope this is the end of the issue as far as the EBSQ website is concerned, but I have my doubts if their ongoing battle with Etsy is indicative of how they do business.

While, according to Polyvore-founder Pasha Sadri, Polyvore is not a sales venue, he also admitted that they do make money when someone clicks through to an affiliated merchant like The Gap and makes a purchase (see the conversation in context at Flickr) There is also some talk of them enabling you to print out your spanking “new” derviative artwork in the future. So yes, they are potentially profitting from your stolen artwork.

What can you do if your work has been used at Polyvore without your consent?

  • Make sure you document every single Polyvore “set” that used your image(s) including screenshots and urls for each infraction
  • Contact info@polyvore.com with your complaint.  Ask them to remove your source images, ALL derivative works created from your originals, and ask them to block your domain from being snipped again if the work was stolen from your personal domain or blog. You can also submit your complaint via their online copyright infraction form.
  • Follow up to make sure your work has actually been removed.  Don’t just take their word for it!

For further reading on this issue:









Finally, EBSQ artist Aja created a petition aimed at stopping Polyvore from allowing these violations to continue. If this is something you are passionate about, she asks that you take a look and consider adding your voice (and name) to the conversation.

In response, some of the users at Polyvore have created a petition of their own.

So, what’s your take on this issue? Is Polyvore simply an interesting space that lets you mashup other people’s images to create something new and fun to share with your friends? Or is the site blatantly encouraging copyright infringement and ignoring artists’ rights?

-Amie Gillingham, co-founder, EBSQ

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22 thoughts on “Polyvore-ingenius or infringement

  1. Personally, I think it encourages creativity. If someone took the magazines away from me when I was a kid, and told me I couldn’t cut out the pictures I liked to create collages for the wall in my room, I probably wouldn’t be doing visual art today… And, I found one of my works on the site – it links back to my official website. So, I went to the original poster’s blog & thanked her, and she visited my blog in return! How can I be upset about that? 🙂

  2. I first found out about it through flickr and a doll (Blythe) collectors group I belong to.

    I found that finding IF your images have been clipped is pretty difficult unless you want to sift through the whole site. It’s not that I wouldn’t let someone use my images I often do!!! Quite happily I might add.

    BUT not being ASKED in any way does bother me. An individual who may have “borrowed” and image to make a point on their blog or something like that I don’t mind, usually they have some kind of link in place, like the flickr one. BUT a buisness which is set up to make money using my images to bring people onto their site, and use it , and hopefully to give them revenue should KNOW they need to ask permission.

    I have had online businesses ask to use my images, and granted them permission without a second thought, without any compensation other than a link back. I have no problem with that. BUT THEY ASKED ME. I have even had second party requests for permission to use an image on a site. So it’s not impossible for Polyvore to set up a system where by a you are asked if your image may be used and then just click “Yep go ahead and use it” or “No thanks I’d rather not.”

    Sitting at the kitchen table cutting up magazines to make collages is fine…then taking those collages, calming them as your original art work and using them as advertising for a retail chain all over the world is copyright infringement.

    P.S. 3 days ago I notified them I wanted my original images removed, I saw a form pop up after submitting it, and have received NO response from them other than that since.

    P.P.S. Personally I think they are revelling in all the traffic this fiasco has driven to their site.

  3. I have to admit I saw the site a while back and it looked like teenagers making fashion mag collages, something my middle school art students LOVE to do in the RW, so I know they would love it virutal even more! I try to address copyright issues with my students, but this site makes it appear (to the un-tech-copyright-savvy) that it is OK to use the images on the site. So I am sure a bulk of their users are innocent, clueless teens having fun.

    BUT I recently became aware of this issue of pulling personal and professional photos from flickr and blogs. This worried me. I too had made the assumption that the images were culled from copyright free sources. As I did a bit of surfing, and attempting to find track backs to work that was copyrighted, I mostly located things that went back to free image sources. I also discovered ffound and Heartit… both of which allow people to save, download and use photos that are copyrighted.

    Then I saw some of the really amazing works of art on there, some that I WOULD buy! SO I know that there is certianly sales potentials for some of the better users.

    Luckily, I can’t seem to find any of my art or photos there… or I don’t know how to find them.

    I think the world of copyright is getting harder and harder to manage with the internet, WE put our work out there and ANYTHING can happen to it. Who has the time to surf day and night to find violations? Some techie person needs to invent a techbot that surfs for violations and then provide a service of notifing those places, or provide lists so the artist can notify the sites.

    sticky situation no doubt

  4. Lets remember that many of the people they are ripping images from make their living from their art. Imagine if the person next to you received your pay check. There are copywrites for a reason. Most of the images are not linked back or even credited. There are ways of encouraging creativity without taking credit for other’s hard work.

  5. Noelle said […]So it’s not impossible for Polyvore to set up a system where by a you are asked if your image may be used and then just click “Yep go ahead and use it” or “No thanks I’d rather not.”

    I have to agree, this would be a great way for them to handle it. It covers their collective arse as a business, it potentially brings them more customers/eyeballs/brand awareness, and builds their community in a positive way. And, I might add, it goes a long way to protect the rights of artists/photographers/designers who want to opt out without it being to the detriment of artists who enjoy seeing their work used in what can admittedly be some gorgeous mashups. Permission is everything.

  6. I really don’t have much more to add to this. I personally think the answer to the original question is both. Polyvore.com is for fun but it is also in violation of copyright laws and blatantly ignoring artist’s rights.

    I don’t blame the users of Polyvore.com at all. The is the sole responsibility of Polyvore to make sure that the images being used are not in copyright violation. I hope they start taking the situation seriously.

  7. Someone needs to tell Aja that Van Gogh wants his background back!


    The hyprocrisy of the anti-polyvore crusade is disgusting – copyright or no copyright, if they’re going to throw around words like “parasite”, or in the oh so eloquent terms of someone who signed the petition “art rapist”, then they should be prepared to have those terms thrown right back at them.

  8. I didn’t say it was “illegal”, I said it was “parasitic” and “hypocritical”. Please learn to read.

  9. It might be hypocritical if it wasn’t in public domain. Parasitic? I don’t think so either. Point of departure maybe.

  10. Being inspired by an artist’s work and re painting/creating it in your own hand and your own medium (like Aja’s VanGogh inspired background) seems very different to me than taking an actual photo of someone’s work that is for sale (like the images ripped from Etsy) and making it a digital collage.

    When I was younger I cut out from magazines all the time, but as I developed as an artist I felt it was better to use my own images as much as possible. I wasn’t even thinking about copyright, I just wanted things to be more of my own style not a hodge-podge of someone else.

    I am still inspired by many artists, but I always try to do my own version of it in my own medium and style.

  11. @Lola: Don’t let the emotionally charged language used by artists who are upset that their work was used without their permission to colour your views on the larger issue. Polyvore users need to be more aware of Polyvore’s TOS as it pertains to copyright, and Polyvore needs to both adhere to its own TOS as well as find an innovative way to make their venture work to everyone’s benefit. Again, I cite Noelle’s comment above where she suggests that copyright holders are notified and given the option to opt in or out when someone wants to use their image. That way, the images on the site are ones that are generally legally allowed to be there and Polyvore users can re-use the great images they find on the Polyvore site without fear that they’re unintentionally violating someone’s copyrights.

  12. @ lola, I’m missing your point. Are you saying that it is okay to steal imges that are copywrited and not public domain or are you saying that an artist that doesn’t want others to use his or her image to make a profit is a “parasite” for not sharing their work for everyone else’s profit? Or do you just not like the language used by mad artists? Just trying to understand your position…

  13. Amie had left a comment on my blog (I had posted regarding Polyvore) with some information and a link to this post.

    Copyright and what’s going on with Polyvore are such complicated issues! I appreciate the way Amie’s comments were laid out. I personally consider Polyvore a social commerce site that I can use as a marketing tool. However I think many people have absolutely valid concerns here.

    Just wanted to make sure Amie knew I had read her comment and appreciated it!

  14. Because this issue with Polyvore has been ongoing and the onus of reporting and having copyrighted materials removed is on the individual artist, I believe the only way this issue will end once and for all is through legal action. Would the ESBQ community be interested in this option?

  15. I’m kind of divided on this one. Yes I want credit for my images and I don’t want others profiting off my work, leaving me to struggle to pay my heating bill, but………….

    First, it won’t be stolen if it’s not considered cool enough to steal. Second, what a kewl toy. I keep thinking of friends that have “vision boards” or young girls playing around with fashion and interior design. I wish the technology had been available when I was a kid. As a kid, I copied the “master’s” work to learn and even now, most artists are inspired/steal techniques, style, etc all the time. History calls them movements.

    I do draw the line, however, at claiming my work as your own, not helping to promote the kewl artist you borrowed it from or making a profit off the collage without permission or royalty.

    Other than that, I’m going to play with this thing myself.

  16. We have just had a huge debate about Polyvore image theft in the Flickr Help Forum http://www.flickr.com/help/forum/en-us/89375/

    Lola … 70 years after death, copyrighted material becomes Public domain, so people are within their legal right to use the image.

    There is also a raging debate on Polyvore’s own Official Blog of Polyvore.com – Copyright where the person that Pasha Sadri told me was the blog’s moderator, mijori, is clearly advocating image theft. In fact, when you leave a comment you get a message that it will be posted upon blog owner’s approval … yet many comments were going missing of people who were trying to clarify copyright law, as per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that Polyvore purports to uphold. http://blog.polyvore.com/2008/01/important-note-about-copyright.html

    I lodged a formal complaint by email to copyright@polyvore.com and lo and behold my ‘disappeared’ comments miraculously reappeared. Others in the forum who shared the views on respecting copyright also had comments that disappeared. I emailed Polyvore for an explanation why some comments are immediately posted and others, that oppose the views of the moderator are held up until we lodge a formal complaint. The email response I received said that some are held back for Moderator approval.

    I then emailed back asking:
    ” would like to know why MY comments are flagged to be moderated, whereas other people’s are not. On the blog I have done my best to clarify correct Copyright Law as per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, that Polyvore purports to uphold (in fact you state this in each of your emails auto replies). Yet those who condone infringing copyright, their comments are immediately posted. This is confusing. Please explain how you choose which comments are flagged for moderation, and which are automatically posted.” I am still waiting for a reply.

    In the meantime, despite Pasha telling me by email on Jan. 17, 09 4:48 pm that mijori ” is the official moderator on the site”, Nadia left a comment on the Blog this evening saying that only she, Pasha and Jess are official moderators. I presume they now realize the possible legal implications of mijori’s stance, as the person they initially entrusted to be moderator, openly and rabidly condoning theft of our images, even telling us to embrace it and enjoy it.

    At first I thought it was the fault of the Polyvore members but when I looked at the website’s interface where members can Drag & Drop from the Image Library into their sets, the Library appears to be owned and operated by Polyvore, inviting its members to freely drag and drop from this library. Polyvore directly profits from our stolen images because it saves it self the significant cost that it otherwise would have to spend to provide its members with a legitimate image Library. Without content to offer their members, the offerings of Polyvore would be scant and the website would unlikely thrive. There are provisions in the DMCA that address situations where the provider stands to benefit from the stolen images that its members upload (which is the case with Polyvore).

    Pasha Sadri is an excellent programmer and could easily remedy the problem today if he wanted. All he needs to do is to add the same javascript code that currently exists on the comment page (when members leave a comment on another member’s sets) a pop up window appears that asks whether this is a copyright issue “Yes” “No”, which the person must choose one or the other before the comment posts. This very same javascript code could be pasted onto the Drag & Drop page and when a member goes to drop an image into their sets from the Library, it would simply ask “Are you the valid copyright owner of this image, or do you have explicit permission to use this image. “Yes” “No”, If the answer is “No”, they would get a message saying that they need to contact the owner for permission. Simple, simple solution. I’ve suggested this to Pasha and on the blog, but so far, they seem to prefer the website’s deceptive interface that lulls their members into thinking the images are free for them to use as they please, and the Polyvore Official Blog reinforces that belief.

  17. @Gale: First, I’d like to thank you for adding to this conversation!

    Second, purely on the subject of why some of Polyvore’s blog’s comments are immeadiately approved and others not, if they’re set up anything like EBSQ’s blog, folks usually only need to be approved once and then they typically aren’t moderated by the software again unless they’re posting from a different IP or list a different website, email address, etc. That doesn’t excuse them not posting valid comments, mind you. It just explains why some show up right away and others don’t.

  18. My copyrighted images continue to be used on Polyvore without my permission. At last count there were 50 uses of them. I have begun invoicing Polyvore US 500 dollars for each license use, so the invoice total for 50 images was $25,000. (I took screenshots of each of them and uploaded them to my website, to keep track of the thefts.

    I also emailed Polyvore’s CEO, Pasha Sadri to ask the following 7 questions:

    Why does Polyvore’s Image Library link to non-merchant websites that contain almost exclusively copyrighted images that owners DO NOT PERMIT to be offered by Polyvore from its Image Library for its members to drag & drop freely ?

    Is there some commission that Polyvore or these other websites are receiving by fencing / hawking our images?

    I have heard from Polyvore members that our images are not actually deleted from Polyvore, but merely hidden. Is this true? If so, why?

    What notification / warning do Polyvore members receive when victims of stolen images write to Polyvore to beg to have them removed?

    How does Polyvore keep track of repeat abusers and what notification do they receive?

    How many abuses does it take before the Polyvore Member’s membership is revoked?

    Pasha emailed back and said “i am on a trip with limited access to the internet. i will not be checking/replying to messages. pasha”

    That was 2 weeks ago. I’ve not yet heard back from him and my images continue to be used on Polyvore, which they tap into through websites like ffffound, photobucket, and even from websites in countries that do not adhere to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, such as 2photo.ru etc.

    When I did a quick search a few days ago, even more of my images had been uploaded and are being cut to bits and used by Polyvore members in their collages.
    When will this unlawful image theft stop?

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