It's been a big day for news stories that wouldn't have even been comprehensible 10 years ago (and are barely comprehensible now), what with the great CGI influencer hack of 2018 and this: What appeared to be a mass theft of influencer content by women's lifestyle site PopSugar.
On Tuesday, multiple bloggers and a rep for the affiliate linking service RewardStyle informed Fashionista that PopSugar had taken millions of pieces of content from influencers without their knowledge or consent and used them to create its own network of profiles. All of the images appeared to have been taken from influencers who use LIKEtoKNOW.it, a mobile app that allows people to shop items that they screenshot on Instagram from participating influencers' accounts; the influencers then get a commission when that person purchases the item. In addition to taking the images, PopSugar removed all RewardStyle commissionable links and in their place added ShopStyle links through which PopSugar would receive commission.
"As an influencer myself, I am fully aware of the investment required to create original content and it was disappointing to see more than 1,800 of my personal images displayed on PopSugar.com, stripped of all RewardStyle commissionable links and instead monetized by ShopStyle affiliate links," wrote RewardStyle Co-Founder and President Amber Venz Box in a letter sent to users and Fashionista on Tuesday morning. "Our legal team continues to review the matter and we will circulate updated communications once we're able."
One blogger passed along a statement she received from ShopStyle, which was once, but is no longer, owned by PopSugar. "We are conducting a thorough investigation. As part of the investigation, PopSugar's ability to create ShopStyle links has been disabled effective immediately," the statement reads.
RewardStyle was alerted to the activity by influencers on Sunday evening. Several of them have since taken to the comments section of PopSugar's most recent Instagram post to voice their frustrations. We also heard from several bloggers who said hundreds of their photos were taken. One found out about the activity by doing a reverse image search of one of her photos and shared the information in a private Facebook group.
PopSugar, which had already removed the content from its site, responded to the accusations on Tuesday evening with a statement posted to Twitter by CEO and Co-Founder Brian Sugar. He explains that it was an experiment that resulted from a hackathon using "publicly available APIs to gain an understanding of trends across brands, retailers and categories," and that the affiliate links were switched so that PopSugar could "track clicks to retailers and understand trends internally." The "findings" were published on PopSugar.com last summer but apparently only meant to be referenced by PopSugar staff as they were hidden from search and social media. The company ultimately abandoned the project, but the URLs were left open. He says PopSugar made $2,695 in commissions from this and plans to pay influencers what they're owed. You can read his full note and apology below.
We reached back out to RewardStyle's rep who was unable to comment "due to ongoing legal." We'll continue to update this story as we learn more.
UPDATE, June 27, 2018, 12:48 p.m.: According to The Fashion Law, Los Angeles-based influencer Nita Batra filed a multi-million dollar suit in a California federal court this week, alleging that PopSugar "decided to capitalize on the influencers' social media following by copying and posting thousands of influencers' Instagram images, on its own website without authorization."
In the filing, Batra claims that PopSugar's conduct harmed her and hundreds of other influencers, by infringing their copyright-protected imagery, violating their "statutory right of publicity under California law by using their names and likenesses in connection with its own marketing efforts" and "unlawfully interfering with the contract[s] that [she and] the class members [have with] LIKEtoKNOW.it, by diverting commissions from the sales of products" featured on their Instagram accounts. She also asserts that PopSugar removed the products' affiliate links," which enables influencers to earn commissions if their followers purchase any of the linked products.
As a result of the above complaints, Batra is asking the court to approve her proposed class action lawsuit, which would allow any other influencers impacted by PopSugar's acts to join the lawsuit. In addition, she is seeking an array of monetary damages that exceed $5 million.
UPDATE, July 2, 2018, 3:00 p.m.: RewardStyle announced that on June 29, it filed a petition in the District Court in Dallas County, Texas (where it's based) against Popsugar and Shopstyle. It is not a lawsuit, but a legal petition requesting depositions from Popsugar and Shopstyle that could be a precursor to a lawsuit. The depositions would preserve evidence and allow Rewardstyle to evaluate possible legal claims.
UPDATE, February 14, 2019, 12:00 p.m.: In hopes of getting out of this mess, Popsugar filed a motion to dismiss Batra's complaint. On Feb. 7, as first reported by The Hollywood Reporter, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. denied that motion, thereby affirming the plausibility of Batra's claims. It's not a win for Batra yet, but it means her lawsuit has legs.
UPDATE, June 17, 2019, 3:30 p.m.: Nearly a year after Rewardstyle/LIKEtoKNOW.it filed a petition requesting depositions from Popsugar and Shopstyle, the petition has been granted in full. Popsugar and Shopstyle must now produce documents including "data and programs utilized in copying, altering, and utilizing content originating from LIKEtoKNOW.it, copies of all content copied during the 'hackathon' or as a result of those efforts as referenced in Brian Sugar's April 17, 2018 tweet, and all correspondence regarding the copying, altering, or utilizing of content originating from LIKEtoKNOW.it."
"As an advocate and ally of influencers around the world, and as an influencer myself, this unequivocal Order is greatly validating," said Venz Box in a statement. "We will not stand for predatory behavior against influencers and we are grateful to the judiciary for recognizing the value of this investigation."