Since the quaint, pastoral days of catfishing, intellectual property theft and profit-piggybacking on the internet has always been difficult to track, and it’s only getting harder. Online scams are a part of life now, not to mention excellent podcast fodder. Maybe you’ve swiped through some stolen profile pictures on Tinder, or maybe you follow a particular stolen-tweet Twitter account that just won an award for meme creation. It feels like it comes with the territory. But every now and then, something happens that seems outrageous even by our current lax standards of ownership online. I’m talking about PopSugar, the venture capitalist-backed, multimillion-dollar media company that has allegedly been repurposing Instagram photos of small potatoes style bloggers for affiliate-link content.
As first reported by The Fashion Law this week, PopSugar was accused of stealing the personal photos of style bloggers and micro-influencers (those with fewer than 10,000 followers), using them to generate their own affiliate-link commissions. RewardStyle, an invite-only web tool that helps bloggers monetize their content through affiliate links, sent their users an email on Tuesday from founder Amber Venz Box: “Yesterday evening, it came to our attention that PopSugar.com had not only repurposed influencer content without their consent, but further removed all rewardStyle commissionable links, and instead monetized by ShopStyle affiliate links.”
On Like To Know It, an app employed by rewardStyle, a blogger can specifically monetize her Instagram account by making Instagram screenshots shoppable. All or nearly all of the photos swiped by PopSugar seem to have come from the bloggers’ Like To Know It posts.
It seems PopSugar used the Like To Know It posts to create similar “shoppable” pages for individual RewardStyle bloggers using their original photos, but subbed in PopSugar’s own affiliate links on ShopStyle, a RewardStyle competitor previously owned by PopSugar. In her statement, Venz Box says that RewardStyle’s legal team is in the middle of reviewing the issue.
“The fact that somebody would take those photos, copy them, remove the affiliate links that were embedded in those, which would reward the people who took the photos, and post them on their own site — that is copyright infringement,” internet and copyright attorney Brett Lewis tells The Verge. “It is probably an unfair business practice, it could be tortious interference, and probably other things that I haven’t had a chance to think about yet.”
Venz Box, through a spokesperson, declined to comment further.
Even 10 years ago, PopSugar probably could’ve gotten away with this unscathed. But the general public perception of influencers has changed over the years. Influencers are no longer hobbyists with Instagram accounts, nor are they all trying to leverage their online popularity into a Vogue column. Many are earning full-time incomes from their content, and disruption of that income by a massive company is more than just another unfortunate hazard of making a living online: it could be legally actionable.
The shoppable PopSugar pages were first discovered this weekend by a fashion blogger who posted screenshots of her stolen photos in a private Facebook group for RewardStyle members. From there, other bloggers began to realize that PopSugar had used their photos as well. It’s not clear how many bloggers were affected, but in her email, Venz Box says that “millions of pieces of original content” were stolen. PopSugar did not contact any of the bloggers about using their photos. It’s not clear how long the tool has been active, but ShopStyle was bought from PopSugar by the online rebates site Ebates in February 2017.
In a statement yesterday, ShopStyle said that, as a result of the breach, it was in the process of terminating a commerce agreement with PopSugar that both parties had entered into after the Ebates acquisition that had allowed PopSugar to continue collecting revenue with ShopStyle affiliate links in exchange for sale-generating creative content.
PopSugar took down the shoppable pages on Wednesday, and CEO Brian Sugar responded to the incident on Twitter by chalking it up to an experiment that had been forgotten about. He claims the tool was built during a hackathon — a common event at startups where designers and programmers, among others, work together to create new, sometimes unusual products — and was left open to the public by accident. “We mistakenly left these URLs open not to make money or anything nefarious, but from a lack of monitoring and a misallocation of resources,” he wrote.
Like To Know It’s Terms of Service do prohibit “‘screen scraping,’ ‘database scraping,’ or any other practice or activity the purpose of which is to obtain lists of users, portions of a database, or other lists or information from the Services, in any manner or in any quantities not authorized by rewardStyle.”
Sugar says the company only made $2,695 in commissions from these links, though he did not provide evidence to confirm the statement. He also says the company plans to pay the money in full to the “appropriate influencers who have earned it.” None of the bloggers I spoke to had heard anything about payment from PopSugar yet, and Sugar told The Verge he had nothing to say beyond what he had tweeted.
Part of the reason why it’s hard to figure out how much money PopSugar made, or how much money the bloggers lost, is because affiliate link commissions can vary by terms and rates, depending on who’s posting it and where it directs to. RewardStyle and ShopStyle are just a small part of a large network of affiliate programs, which allow bloggers to post links to brands or products and earn a commission, either from clicks alone or from direct sales.
ShopStyle and RewardStyle are both sub-affiliate networks, which means they combine different affiliate link programs that already exist, rather than creating their own, and both are geared toward lifestyle and fashion bloggers. But the big difference is in how they pay out money. RewardStyle is a cost-per-action (CPA) program, meaning bloggers only earn a commission if their links actually lead to a sale, while ShopStyle, the former PopSugar network, is a pay-per-click (PPC) affiliate program, meaning bloggers will receive a commission from every click, even if no sale is completed. The commission on RewardStyle links ranges between 4.9 and 30 percent of a sale, with the average payout hovering around 10 percent, according to a report from the blog finance publisher Rosevibe. ShopStyle has no maximum commission per click, but its minimum is described only as “above $0.00.” (This likely means RewardStyle commissions will be higher, but they’re harder to get.)
Erin Rogosienski, a stylist and blogger who had about 30 of her photos reused by PopSugar, says she just began working with RewardStyle a few months ago and earns “a couple hundred” dollars per month in commissions. “For me, it was more of a side thing to add on to what I already do for my business,” she says. “But I know for a lot of these girls, it’s their main source of income.
“My Instagram and my blogging is something that takes time, and a lot of time away from my kids and my family and that’s the number one reason I’m doing it,” she continues. “And it’s not fair for someone else to profit off of my hard work even if it isn’t my full-time income.”
Tomi Obebe, a style blogger with around 8,500 Instagram followers, says that PopSugar repurposed 174 of her photos, some of which dated back to mid-2017. Tomi is a member of both RewardStyle and ShopStyle, but the PopSugar links weren’t connected to her ShopStyle account. She says she usually sees anywhere from 2,500 to 4,500 clicks per month on affiliate links.
It’s not just bloggers who have been impacted by this; it’s photographers, too. Style blogger Chelsie Carr says only two of her photos were taken by PopSugar, but they were still professional photos that she had paid for. “Both of those photos were taken by my photographer that I’m on a paid contract with, so to have a HUGE site take photos that I paid money for, and put them on without my consent, was infuriating,” she writes in an email to The Verge. “I understand that I post my photos to the internet, but to have my brand taken from me and represented on a site that I don’t choose to be associated with feels like such a violation of my business.”
Tom McGovern is a professional photographer who often takes photos of his girlfriend, the style blogger Alicia Tenise. McGovern says PopSugar used 419 of Tenise’s photos, some of which she had already licensed out to other brands. “It’s funny for PopSugar to do this when, just a month ago, they had an article about how stealing Instagram photos is wrong,” he said in a phone call. “To build out that whole system, and then apologize after the fact, I don’t see how there’s any way they thought people would welcome that with open arms.”
McGovern also says that even though Brian Sugar claims the pages were never indexed in Google search, you can still see evidence of the posts in cached pages and in Google search. Below, in screenshots provided by McGovern to The Verge, you can see the copy PopSugar used to describe Tenise’s images: “AS SEEN ON INSTAGRAM SHOP MORE.”
McGovern plans to speak with lawyers next week; other individual bloggers have threatened legal action as well. Lewis believes they could have a case. “If what [PopSugar] did was copy these photos, and remove affiliate links from them, it seems that they have violated the law,” Lewis says. “I don’t believe [PopSugar] had any right to utilize any of those copyrighted photographs for their ‘experiment.’”
“A lot of people think that when you hear ‘Instagram’ or ‘blogger,’ that they’re fair game,” McGovern says. “If they had been like, ‘Hey we’re pulling all these photos from the H&M catalog or the J. Crew catalog,’ that would’ve created an instant backlash.”
But the backlash was pretty swift this time around, too. Wherever the story goes from here, this is a significant moment in the style-blogging universe. Influencers are no longer just another part of the online side-hustle economy, racking up free designer samples here and there. For many, it’s become a career like any other — well, almost.