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Snapchat May Have a Longer History of Copying Than We Thought

New details suggest the company encouraged artists to trace

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Snapchat may have been encouraging copycat tactics for longer than first thought. Last week, The Ringer reported on artists who alleged that Snapchat was using their work without attribution in its selfie filters, a feature called Lenses. In response, the company said it has “already implemented additional layers of review for all designs,” and that it is “taking appropriate action internally with those involved.”

Before publishing the story, I reached out to Snapchat to get an explanation of the selfie filter creation process. Who makes the designs? How does Snapchat find them? At what point in this system could the copycatting be happening? Snapchat didn’t respond to that request for comment, so I began to hypothesize: Snapchat is a big company — it’s possible that simple oversight and the work of contracted employees play a role. Surely, some stage of development of the Lenses feature is farmed out to freelancers. There are millions of artists on the internet — if a small handful, or even just one or two, borrowed heavy inspiration from them, it would be difficult for Snapchat’s review process to identify the copying.

But Snapchat’s practices could be even more knowingly predatory, according to one freelance artist. Angela Perez, a graphic designer whom Snapchat recruited to make selfie filters, told me she was “encouraged to trace sample images from famous YouTubers.” Perez says that in March, Snapchat Lenses lead developer Yurii Monastyrshyn emailed her after seeing her work on YouTube and asked if she’d like to work on the company’s Lenses. Of course, if she was interested, she would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

In a second email to Perez, Monastyrshyn directly sent her to a well-known makeup artist’s YouTube channel, writing, “You could either create your own art or follow some sample [sic], very good examples are here.” This was followed by a link to makeup artist Madeyewlook’s YouTube page.

Monastyrshyn is the COO and cofounder of a facial-mapping algorithm company called Looksery, which was rumored to be acquired by Snapchat last year and used to support the Lenses technology. (Looksery’s domain is not active.) While the acquisition was never announced, Monastyrshyn identifies himself as the lead on Lenses, has a Snapchat email address, and is listed as working for both Snapchat and Looksery on LinkedIn. It seems likely that the two merged, and that Looksery’s technology is used to power Lenses. Based on his emails with Perez, it appears Snapchat uses software that can trace a design that allows users to make overlays on a face, a process he described as “pretty simple.”

“You just draw cool stuff on a face in Photoshop or any other editor, save the layer without face [sic] as image, and load to our software,” Monastyrshyn wrote. “In our software you will be able to see the painting over your face in real time from web-camera [sic] to adjust the final result.” He told Perez she would be welcome to create her own designs or “follow” someone else’s.

Perez, unhappy with both Snapchat’s suggestion to trace another artist’s work and with the amount of money it offered to pay, said she did not take the job or sign the NDA.

It’s important to note that the deal Snapchat attempted to strike with Perez was initiated in March, two months before the initial allegations about the company lifting work from artists first surfaced. In May, Snapchat said it was “taking action to make sure it won’t happen again.” But it allegedly did happen again, at least three more times.

While Perez was not explicitly instructed to copy someone else’s work, the prompt could certainly be interpreted that way and lead to other freelancers doing so — that it came directly from the Lenses lead is even more troubling. I reached out to the company again this week to ask for a response to the emails and the notion that an employee was responsible for suggesting filter-makers could “follow some sample” of others’ work. Snapchat once again declined to comment.