Sisters Sue Snapchat, Claiming Photos Damaged Their Reputation

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 30, 2014

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Two sisters whose images have been widely used in Snapchat marketing have sued the app company, claiming that its “tawdry reputation” for sexting has damaged their reputations.

Elizabeth and Sarah Turner, then 18 and 19, agreed to model for a supposed class project by Snapchat’s founders.

In 2011, Stanford University student Evan Spiegel contacted Elizabeth Turner, a Duke University student and professional model then living in Los Angeles. When he asked her to model at his house, Elisabeth said she would only go if her sister could come with her.

The sisters ended up coming to a photo shoot on the Santa Monica Pier and other nearby locations.

The Release Form

Beach PhotoSeveral days after the shoot, the sisters signed release forms permitting their pictures to be used to promote Picaboo, Snapchat’s predecessor company. Picaboo had a feature that made photos disappear after a set time.

The release form said that the images could be used “exclusively for the purpose of promoting the Picaboo application for iPhone.”

The lawsuit claims that the photos were later used for Android and website marketing – not just for the iPhone app. The suit also claims that the sisters were never asked for their consent for the broader use of their images.

The sisters said they were never told that their images would be manipulated to suggest that one of the sisters was pulling off the other’s bikini top and that they were nude on the beach. They said they were never paid for their modeling work.

The release form they signed expressly waived any claim for compensation: “I understand there will be no financial or other remuneration for recording me, either for initial or subsequent transmission or playback.”

“Snapchat Sluts”?

Later in 2011, Picaboo’s founders changed the company name to Snapchat. The images of the Turner sisters were used in a carousel of photos that linked to the iTunes page for the app.

Snapchat has since become especially popular with people who send graphic, revealing, and embarrassing photos and texts. These disappear from the recipients’ devices after a specified time.

The Turner sisters say that their images now appear in the most prominent location in Google image searches for phrases like “snapchat sluts.”

(Their images can be seen in this TechCrunch article.)

The Lawsuit

The Turner sisters’ complaint is for violation of statutory rights of publicity and violation of common law rights of publicity under California law.

They say that their pictures have been so widely used that they are effectively the “faces” of Snapchat.

Snapchat is valued at $10 billion. Its founders turned down an offer from Facebook for $3 billion.

The complaint claims that the Turners’ attractiveness was one of the reasons for the app’s success. Spiegel wrote in an early online post directed to fraternity members about the “very good looking” girl from Duke who appeared in the app’s screenshots. He appended a photo of Elizabeth.

The sisters claim that the defendants’ actions in using their photos were “malicious and oppressive” and thus that they’re entitled to punitive damages, as well as a share of Snapchat’s profits and economic value.

Protecting Yourself from “Right of Publicity” Lawsuits

Photographers, and companies that use models to promote their products and services, can better protect themselves from lawsuits if they:

  1. Always get a model release – preferably BEFORE the photos are taken. Make the scope of the release as broad as possible, to include things like company and product name changes.
  2. Get written permission from the models before exceeding the scope of the original release.

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