Weekly take: Humans of Bombay’s copyright claim could be a tall story
Online storytelling platform Humans of Bombay isn’t wrong for trying to protect its copyright, but it could have handled its dispute better
Last week, the popular Indian storytelling platform Humans of Bombay sued another content platform called People of India for alleged copyright infringement.
Both platforms, which share people’s stories through social media posts, have millions of followers on Instagram.
Based on HoB’s complaint, the Delhi High Court issued a summon to PoI on September 18. The defendant will be required to present their side of the story at a future hearing.
Ordinarily, the story would have died in a day or two as just another piece of legal news. But then it caught the attention of Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York (HoNY).
Stanton’s HoNY inspired the creation of several subsequent ‘Humans of ...’ platforms across the world, including HoB.
On Sunday, September 23, Stanton posted on X, formerly Twitter, that he had stayed quiet on HoB’s appropriation of his idea because he believed it shared important stories.
However, he noted that HoB had monetised the concept “far past anything” he would have felt comfortable doing on HoNY.
He added: “But you can't be suing people for what I've forgiven you for”.
Stanton’s post has since gone viral. It has had more than four million views and numerous people have asked Stanton to sue HoB for copyright infringement to “give them a taste of their own medicine”.
As an observer, I’d say the outrage against HoB is somewhat unwarranted and results from low intellectual property awareness and an online ‘trolling’ culture.
I must admit that I’ve never been a fan of HoB because of its focus on making money out of peoples’ stories.
I also think the platform could have handled its copyright issue with PoI much better.
That said, it’s not difficult to see HoB’s side of the story.
A review of the Delhi High Court’s order from earlier this month shows that PoI apparently imitated a lot more than just HoB’s business model.
As it happens, I believe HoB’s contention about PoI copying its business model is absurd, especially when its own name and platform are clearly inspired by HoNY’s.
But more on that later.
HoB told the court that PoI’s social media posts showcasing people’s stories infringed its own posts.
PoI had approached the same people whose stories HoB had already published and used identical texts and photos, HoB said.
There isn’t enough information to verify this yet, but some onlookers highlighted that a third-party photographer may have shared the same photos with both HoB and PoI.
If that’s true, then HoB’s IP infringement claims could be shaky unless the photographer entered into a specific agreement with HoB that gave the platform exclusive rights to use those images.
Also, if the overlapping texts used by both platforms only comprised what the interviewed individuals had told them then HoB could again find it hard to establish a strong copyright claim.
While the dispute raises some interesting questions about who owns the IP in a news story with different contributors, it’s unfair to say that HoB was wrong in trying to protect its rights.
The platform could still find it hard to establish a strong case of infringement if if it can’t show undisputable IP rights on the relevant photographs and text.
However, it may have an unfair competition case, particularly if it can prove that PoI did indeed try and seek out the same people and share the same stories.
Those trolling HoB also fail to understand that HoB still can have a valid copyright claim in its content even if its business model and name may have been inspired by HoNY.
HoNY has inspired the creation of many ‘Humans of ...’ chapters worldwide.
This, coupled with the fact that the New York-based platform was aware of HoB and consented to its use of the ‘Humans of ...’ name for years, shows that HoB’s rights aren’t as questionable as some onlookers think.
The dispute likely went viral because of low IP awareness.
But, even taking away that lack of awareness, it isn’t usually hard to find people prepared to rally against a business that tries to protect its IP.
In India (and possibly elsewhere), IP is often seen as an elitist right. Those who try to enforce their rights are often painted as the bad guys.
This isn’t fair.
Of course, I am not trying to say that HoB was right to initiate a lawsuit.
An entity that claims to “lend a voice to the voiceless”, as HoB does, should be a little more accommodating towards others in the same line of work.
I would have expected HoB to be more accepting of a competitor’s alleged questionable conduct.
After all, as Stanton said, HoB was inspired by someone else’s name and business model.
After the online backlash, HoB clarified that its suit relates to the IP in its posts, not the concept of storytelling.
However, a copy of the Delhi High Court’s order clearly shows that “replicating the plaintiff’s business model” was argued as a ground for seeking relief.
This makes HoB’s clarification seem like something of an afterthought.
I’m not saying HoB shouldn’t have taken any action.
But it could have made a wholehearted effort to resolve the dispute amicably or out of court.
I have previously written at length about how a negative public impression from poorly planned litigation can harm an IP owner’s goodwill and why mediation is a much better way to resolve disputes that can potentially be damaging to a company’s image.
That sentiment applies to this case too.
Trolling someone for simply trying to protect their IP isn’t fair.
But it’s also unfair for an entity that has previously been forgiven for allegedly using someone else’s IP to go after a competitor with all guns blazing.
Hopefully, one good thing will come out of the dispute.
The Delhi High Court now has the chance to decide some interesting questions surrounding the IP ownership of social media content.
I also hope the dispute will ensure onlookers learn a thing or two about IP before they relentlessly troll someone for trying to protect their assets.
That being said, the dispute should serve as another reminder to IP owners that taking the moral high ground may sometimes be a better option than pursuing a course of action that could cost them their business and consumer support.