Who owns anything online, really? Unlike in the offline world where ownership can be dictated by physical possession, online anyone can seemingly take possession of anything: movies, music, YouTube videos -- even, apparently, Snapchat Stories.
On Wednesday, Jacob Catalano plans to release Peek, a mobile app that people can use to see the collection of posts, or "stories," that people publicly publish on Snapchat. The app originated as a site called Snap Stars that people could use to find traditional or digital celebrities -- including Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner and Snapchat star Shaun "Shonduras" McBride -- to follow on Snapchat, the implication being that they would have to follow the celebs on Snapchat in order to see their Stories. Not anymore.
Peek grabs those stories from Snapchat so that people can watch them in Peek, not Snapchat. Mr. Catalano said the idea is that a person's feed of Snapchat stories would become too full if they follow a lot of people. So instead of mixing stories from their real-life friends with stories from famous people, they can use Snapchat to keep up with their friends, and Peek is "for people to find and follow these people directly outside of Snapchat on Peek, so they don't have to worry about cluttering their Snapchat feed," Mr. Catalano said.
Peek, however, doesn't have permission to show all of the stories it's siphoning from Snapchat. For starters, it doesn't have Snapchat's approval. "Redistributing another Snapchatter's Story may infringe their copyright and would violate our terms of service," a Snapchat spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
Peek also doesn't have some of the celebrities' approval. Peek has reached out to all of the celebrities whose content it will feature in its app, Mr. Catalano said. Some said OK, but others didn't say anything. So Peek is taking their content anyway -- a practice called "freebooting" -- and that's where it could really run into some problems.
Facebook ran into a similar problem earlier this year. The social network had been trying to rival YouTube by getting people to post videos natively to Facebook. Problem is, some of those videos are being ripped straight from YouTube, ripping off creators who make a living from those YouTube videos and not a cent from the pirated Facebook views. Prominent YouTube stars like Hank Green and Casey Neistat have publicly called out Facebook for letting this happen, and Facebook has started to help creators deal with these copyright violations, though its efficiency continues to be questioned by creators.
Peek could face a similar backlash, though Mr. Catalano said that Peek would abide creators' requests to remove their content from the app. In an interview, Ad Age asked Mr. Catalano why he created Peek and why he thinks it's OK to take other people's content without their permission and put it in his app. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ad Age: What is Peek, and why do you think it's necessary?
Jacob Catalano: Peek is a Snapchat discovery platform that helps people find and follow the most interesting people on Snapchat. The biggest value-add that we have to a regular user is we help declutter their Snapchat feeds. A lot of times people are interested in watching Snapchat stories from celebrities or Vine stars or YouTubers, and they follow dozens of them on social media. But it's not sustainable to be adding over basically 100 people on Snapchat. That quota's typically already met with your core group of friends. So at Peek we make it a really great platform for people to find and follow these people directly outside of Snapchat on Peek, so they don't have to worry about cluttering their Snapchat feed.
Ad Age: That sounds like Peek would be competitive with Snapchat; instead of spending my time watching these stories in Snapchat, I'm watching them in Peek.
Mr. Catalano: It makes sense what you're saying, but what we think we're going to be doing -- and this is just hypothesis right now -- but what we've been hearing from our early beta testers is we're going to be growing the pie. A lot of the time people are only following one or two of their favorite celebrities on Snapchat because of the clutter issue. But now if you can remove the clutter issue by going over to Peek and now having a platform where you don't have to worry about messing up your Snapchat feed, you can now add as many people as you want. So this is content that wasn't going to get consumed anyways for the most part. That's not to say you're not going to follow your favorite people on Snapchat still. You're still going to do that. We think we're going to grow the pie and allow for more consumption of this style of content. We could actually even add to Snapchat viewing content because we make it very easy for you to discover new users and, if you like them, you can go over to Snapchat and add them. That's a possibility as well.
Ad Age: How are you getting this content from Snapchat?
Mr. Catalano: There are various ways that we're going about getting the content. We have a few different ways of saving content, and we're playing around with what the best one is. But essentially we just, on our end, have a few systems set up that automatically save the Snapchat stories.
Ad Age: Snapchat said that violates their terms of service.
Mr. Catalano: We're working directly with the content creators for the most part. We've reached out to all of them that are on our platform. We haven't gotten a response from all of them, but many of them we have, and we've gotten their permission to be saving their content and redistributing it on Peek. In terms of violating Snapchat's terms of service, I'm not entirely sure that it does. I'm not entirely sure that Snapchat knows exactly what we're doing and how we're saving the videos. So I don't know how they could be saying that with 100% certainty.
Ad Age: Snapchat said that it violates their terms to redistribute another user's story.
Mr. Catalano: We're working directly with content creators, and we think we're adding a good service to them. We're helping them get more exposure to their Snapchat content that they've put a lot of time and energy into. They're very excited about that. We're really a platform that's about helping creators thrive and be a platform that's really for them. Right now they're excited about what we're doing, so we're going to keep doing it.
Ad Age: But not all of the creators have agreed to let you take their content. And in those cases you're taking it anyway, right?
Mr. Catalano: That's correct.
Ad Age: Isn't that an issue? It sounds like freebooting, like how people have been taking YouTube creators' videos and posting them to Facebook without the creators' permissions.
Mr. Catalano: We think a lot of those issues come from monetization. If they're monetizing their YouTube channel, then they're not getting views because they're being replaced over on Facebook. That's an issue for those two platforms. But on Snapchat it's a different scenario, because there are very few people monetizing Snapchat stories. The people that are, we're working with them and trying to let them know if they are monetizing, we can help you command more money for your promoted stories because we have more in-depth analytics on who's watching your stories and what type of content they're viewing and how much they're viewing of it and all sorts of stuff that's going to help them charge more money when they're doing a promoted story. So we're working directly with the individual content creators and agencies that help these creators monetize. Since we're working closely with the creators and agencies that are monetizing Snapchat, we don't see it as an issue.
Ad Age: But what about the creators that haven't given you their permission? Why take their content anyway and seemingly violate any copyright they may have?
Mr. Catalano: Because we also want to serve our users as well. We want to give them the best possible experience when they come on to Peek. And from all the conversations that we've had with the creators so far, it's been overwhelmingly positive. So we're assuming that the vast majority of creators are going to be excited about what we're doing as well. We're taking a liberty by assuming that. But we think it's great for them, and if there's any issue, we're very open to take down any content they don't want on Peek. And at the end of the day, we want to make our users as happy as possible, and we can only do that by providing them the best content and the content that they really want to watch.
Ad Age: Which creators have agreed to give you their content, and which creators have told you not to use their content?
Mr. Catalano: I don't want to say any of their names right now. I don't think they would be OK with that. I don't know. There are a few Instagram celebrities, people I am good friends with.
Ad Age: What communication have you had with Snapchat?
Mr. Catalano: I've tried to reach out to them a few times, and they've not responded to me or gotten back to me in any way.
Ad Age: Peek is a rebranding of your Snap Stars site that people can use to find people to follow on Snapchat and check out their stories from Snapchat. How many people use your service?
Mr. Catalano: In beta it was just a few hundred. The previous version of the app we had a few thousand. With this launch, internally our goal is to get 150,000 downloads by the end of the year.
Ad Age: So you have a month?
Mr. Catalano: Yep.
Ad Age: That's quick. What's your business model?
Mr. Catalano: We are not focusing on the business model in the near term. Particularly because if we do start monetizing, I think that will introduce complications to our relationships with the creators. That's not really the main reason. The main reason is we want to make a platform that users love and the people that come to the app get a high quality experience. Typically the game plan for a lot of the consumer apps is to hold off on monetization until you have very clearly a product that millions of people love and are using on a regular basis. Then you can start thinking about monetization.
Ad Age: What about pulling content from other services like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Vine?
Mr. Catalano: No, the next step would be native content creation within the Peek app. We plan to do that when we're at the 50,000 daily active user mark.
Ad Age: So you're using Snapchat's content as a way to get people in the door and then pivot to having your own content?
Mr. Catalano: More or less. Snapchat has made a brilliant product. They made what I think is the most usable video-editing software ever made in the history of video editing. One hundred and twenty-five million people use it a day [editor's note: Snapchat has only said publicly that 100 million people use its app every day, but has not specified how many of those people use it to post videos]. I think if you ignore that and say this is something people don't like would just be naive and incorrect. It's easier for people to create this content, and very clearly people are viewing this content. So it's definitely a trend. I don't think it's a trend exclusive to Snapchat.
Ad Age: So you're using Snapchat's content to grow your app, and then eventually you'll add your own native content. How would you feel if someone else came along and grabs that native content from Peek and starts putting it in their own app?
Mr. Catalano: I don't know exactly. It's a hypothetical question. But I think generally, given what our mission is, we would be pretty excited about that. We want to have an open API [application programming interface that lets people upload and download data from a service], and we want to link with everything. Our mission at Peek is to uncover and share every perspective in the world. So if anyone wants to create this type of video where they're able to quickly take their phone and make a video of what it's like to be them or be somewhere, we want that content on Peek. So the more people creating this content, that will just get us excited. Of course if we could somehow get it back on to Peek, that would be fantastic. Generally I'd be kind of excited, so long as they had an open dialogue with us and we were able to work with them.
Ad Age: But what if they said, "Oh, we shot you an email about this, but we never heard back so we just started taking your content anyway"?
Mr. Catalano: I mean, I'm an entrepreneur so I'd probably respect that. Break the rules and ask questions later. But I don't know. I'd try to respond to the email; that's what I would try to do.