A couple of times each month, influencer Chelsie Petras notices other Instagram accounts using her photos without giving her any credit.
On one occasion, Petras, who has 32,000 followers on the platform, told CNN Business that a brand went so far as to use a photo of her in an Instagram ad and include “a quote I hadn’t even said beneath it.”
Other influencers have experienced similar issues – from Instagram accounts stealing their content to small e-commerce brands using their images to sell knock-off products. Some influencers have even taken legal action.
“When an influencer posts a piece of content, and blogs or other meme pages pick it up, it grants them a ton of exposure and helps with their growth. That’s the positive side of sharing,” said Joe Gagliese, CEO of influencer marketing firm Viral Nation. “Where it gets sticky is when brands or other people are using it to make money.”
Now, a startup called Trove Business – which offers a platform with resources for influencers trying to build a business – has launched a new product called Image Monitoring. The tool allows influencers to upload specific images or their entire Instagram account to reveal where their photos are being used across the web. The aim is to make it easier for influencers to track down where their content is being used without their permission.
The company was founded in 2016 by fashion and lifestyle influencer Mary Orton and her husband Rich Scudellari. Orton, who has over 229,000 Instagram followers, was inspired to launch the tool after noticing an increase in the issue.
“Content is the core of your business. It’s how you make money and pay your bills [as an influencer],” said Scudellari. “If someone is using it, that’s lost revenue.”
In a demo for CNN Business, about 300 of Orton’s photos were uploaded to Trove’s Image Monitoring service, resulting in nearly 25,000 matches online. Some of Trove’s matches may be legitimate uses, such as links to the influencer’s own blog or paid partnerships they’ve done with brands.
It can take some work to sift through the results. This week, Trove added a ranking system to the Image Monitoring results, indicating which matches users should prioritize. For example, an image appearing on a major retailer’s website would be a bigger priority than one showing up on a blog in a small foreign country.
Sure enough, many of the images in the results were being used without Orton’s consent. Some were uploaded by third-party sellers on major online retail platforms. Others appeared on blogs, conference websites, email newsletters from brands, and even the website of a local chamber of commerce organization in Oregon.
Ryan Detert, CEO of influencer marketing firm Influential, said major brands typically adhere to the terms of their agreements with influencers, such as paying to license and use their images. “But there are some more naive companies, especially in the direct-to-consumer space that will grab it and promote it without clearing it with the influencer. This can lead to legal issues and negative sentiment,” he said.
Some brands may find these images online and assume they’re free to use, but Orton believes others intentionally take influencers’ content because they understand the power of social marketing. Beyond lost income, this also presents risks to an influencer’s reputation, especially if it’s a brand they haven’t vetted or that doesn’t match their values.
“Influencers have carefully and painstakingly built up trust over years with their audience,” she said. “Consumers in many cases have no way of knowing if this professional image being used on a brand’s Instagram and Facebook advertising is actually not endorsed by me.”
The Image Monitoring service ranges between $19 and $199 per month, depending on which features are offered, such as copyright registration for photos.
Users can then contact the brand directly and ask either for images to be taken down or to receive compensation.
For influencer Petras – who has not used Trove’s service – the action she takes depends on the situation. If a big account or brand reposts her content and gives her credit, she doesn’t mind. It’s a way to give her smaller account more exposure. But at the same time, she believes influencers should be compensated for what they create.
“When I set up agreements with brands, they’re paying me for the content I’m creating and to use my photos, which is kind of the whole point of being an influencer,” Petras said.