On April 17, 2018, news outlets among the likes of Racked, The Verge, and Fashionista broke a story centered around media and technology company PopSugar and Instagram influencers. Several fashion and lifestyle influencers have come forward and accused the celebrity and fashion-centric online news site of repurposing their Instagram content, without permission, to generate profits via affiliate links.
Founded in 2005, PopSugar is more than just a source of popular culture news. The media company also sells a quarterly subscription box, its own makeup line, and until last year owned the affiliate link service ShopStyle. According to its website, PopSugar’s global audience sits at 400 million, the brand reaches one-in-three millennial women and achieves 3.1 billion global monthly content views. This is all to say, the company has the potential to earn enormous sums of money using affiliate links.
In the following post, we’ll break down the fallout of the allegations against PopSugar and discuss the scandal’s implications for the influencer industry, particularly in regards to content ownership and copyright infringement.
April 15, 2018: A member of a private Facebook group of nearly 2,000 influencers partnered with the affiliate platform RewardStyle and its Instagram service LIKEtoKNOW.it posts a screenshot from popsugar.com. The screenshot looks like the influencer’s Instagram feed but contains only shoppable posts.
The posts were reportedly Instagram images the influencer published with LIKEtoKNOW.it affiliate links. On the PopSugar site, the LIKEtoKNOW.it affiliate links have been replaced with ShopStyle affiliate links. Each post links to a shoppable PopSugar page where visitors can purchase items showcased in the image.
April 16, 2018: The affiliate linking service ShopStyle, sold from PopSugar to Ebates in 2017, tweets that until further notice PopSugar has been disabled from generating monetized links using its service. The company reports that many influencers have informed its staff that PopSugar may have used their content without consent.
Notably, ShopStyle distances itself from PopSugar in saying, “It is important for you to know that ShopStyle is not currently owned or operated by PopSugar.” The company also says it’s conducting a “thorough investigation.”
April 16-17, 2018: A group of Instagram influencers tells Racked that they’re considering pursuing a class-action lawsuit against PopSugar.
April 17, 2018: RewardStyle founder Amber Venz Box sends an email to its enrolled influencers stating that thousands of images belonging to RewardStyle influencers were put on popsugar.com without RewardStyle’s knowledge or consent.
According to The Verge, the email contained the explicit statement:
“Yesterday evening, it came to our attention that popsugar.com had not only repurposed influencer content without their consent, but further removed all rewardStyle commissioned links, and instead monetized by ShopStyle affiliate links.”
An influencer herself, Venz Box’s own content was also compromised. 1,800 of her Instagram photos appeared on popsugar.com and were stripped of their original LIKEtoKNOW.it affiliate links and replaced with ShopStyle links.
April 17, 2018: The same day, PopSugar co-founder and CEO Brain Sugar tweets a formal apology to any influencers affected. He explains that the shoppable feature on Popsugar’s website was developed during a 2017 company hackathon and that, “We mistakenly left these URLs open not to make money or anything nefarious, but from a lack of monitoring and misallocation of resources.”
In the tweet, Sugar also pledges to pay the influencers who earned money through the feature saying, “Since the feature went live, we have received $2,695 in commissions for this area on popsugar.com and we will pay in full the appropriate influencers who have earned it.”
April 18, 2018: According to reporting from The Verge, PopSugar removes the shoppable influencer posts from its website.
April 18, 2018: In a second Twitter statement, ShopStyle emphasizes that it had no knowledge that PopSugar used ShopStyle affiliate links to monetize influencer content without permission. The company says, “PopSugar acted alone, and we do not condone their actions in any way.”
ShopStyle also says its terminating agreements with PopSugar because the brand, “…not only violated the trust of our influencer community but also violated terms of its agreements with Ebates and ShopStyle,” when using influencer content without consent.
The Verge has specified that the agreement being severed between the two companies is one allowing PopSugar to collect revenue with ShopStyle affiliate links in exchange for “sale-generating creative content.”
Numerous influencers have reported that PopSugar stole content from their Instagram accounts (images, Instagram profile information, and Instagram bio information) without permission. Allegedly, this content was then repurposed for a shoppable feature on PopSugar’s website.
Crucially, the repurposed influencer images contained LiketoKnow.it affiliate links. PopSugar replaced the LiketoKnow.it affiliate links with ShopStyle affiliate links, effectively stealing the revenue influencers would have generated.
Influencers are upset with PopSugar not only because the content they created for Instagram was used without permission, but because many depend on affiliate linking as a source of income. By removing influencers’ affiliate links PopSugar used influencer content for its own gain and prevented influencers from making money.
Influencer dissatisfaction and anger against PopSugar has spread across the web, a large portion of which can be found on PopSugar’s Instagram page.
The PopSugar scandal raises several questions related to content ownership and copyright infringement, namely is it legal to repurpose content published publicly by an influencer to generate your own profit? If not illegal, many influencers feel it’s unethical for one to use their content without gaining permission and providing credit (both monetary and non-monetary).
For instance, Nita Mann (@nextwithnita) a macro-influencer who found 615 images from her Instagram feed on PopSugar.com typically charges a monetary fee for content reuse. Mann disclosed to Racked that brands and websites who ask to use her content pay a flat $100 for reuse. However, Mann’s fee doesn’t apply to posts containing affiliate links or the replacement of affiliate links.
Others have said that PopSugar’s actions are a form of copyright infringement because influencer content looks to be stolen in entirety, with only the affiliate links on Instagram posts being replaced.
Regardless, the incident is damaging to PopSugar’s reputation, particularly as influencers are increasingly viewed as legitimate working professionals. For many, especially smaller influencers, affiliate links contribute heavily to their ability to make a living on social media. For a brand to replace an influencer’s affiliate links with its own, seems to be widely viewed as an underhanded and unacceptable way to do business.
Related Post: The 7 Ways Social Media Influencers Can Make Money