Popular social media page Humans of Bombay (HOB), which tells people’s stories, has sued its contemporary People of India (POI) for stealing its content and has demanded Rs. 5 crore in damages.
Even as the Delhi High Court issued notice observing that prima facie “there is substantial imitation and in fact, in some cases, the photographs/images (published by POI) are identical or imitative”, the war between the storytellers took an interesting turn when photographer Brandon Stanton, best known for his page ‘Humans of New York’ (HONY) joined the fray.
In its suit, HOB says People of India's (POI) copy of its content is not “coincidental” but a “direct result of its concentrated efforts to create similar/identical content”. HOB alleged that in the past six months, POI went as far as to hire former HOB employees who were “meticulously handpicked” and trained.
As Maheshwar Peri, Founder and Chairman of Career 360, said on LinkedIn: “…the edifice that 'Humans of Bombay' very carefully built has come crashing down. It all started with HoB suing 'People of India', for plagiarism and intellectual theft.”
Storytellers at war
It all began on September 23, when Stanton posted a comment on X, the social media platform. “I’ve stayed quiet on the appropriation of my work because I think HumansOfBombay shares important stories, even if they've monetized far past anything I'd feel comfortable doing on HONY. But you can't be suing people for what I've forgiven you for,” he said.
To make matters more interesting, Karishma Mehta, founder and CEO of HOB, called out Stanton for his post and expressed “shock” over a “cryptic assault on our efforts to protect our intellectual property is made in this manner, especially without understanding the background of the case”.
Mehta’s response did not find favour on social media with several calling her out for suing POI even as she appears to have borrowed the idea of HOB from HONY.
But before we go ahead, one must understand the genesis of Stanton’s tweet and Mehta’s response to the same.
Even as a viral video shows Mehta saying how she “stumbled” on the idea for HOB “completely randomly and out of the blue”; HOB's storytelling format is a startling imitation of Stanton’s page HONY which he began in 2010. Even the tagline is similar.
After facing trolls and comments, HOB on Sunday issued a statement clarifying the scope of its suit. HOB said, it was not suing POI for its storytelling format, rather it was trying to protect its content.
“We are grateful to HONY and Brandon for starting this storytelling movement. The suit is related to the IP in our posts and not about storytelling at all,” HOB said.
“We tried to address the issue amicably before approaching the court, as we believe in protecting our team’s hard work,” HOB added.
The Humans of New York vs Humans of Bombay vs People of India controversy throws up interesting issues for our consideration. In the present case, the Humans of Bombay are protecting their content, as opposed to the format of storytelling. With the advent of digital media and the rise in content creators, it will be interesting for courts to evaluate the originality of the content vs. the originality in the format of storytelling.
This case also begs the question – can one copyright an idea?
What are the copyright laws in India?
In India, copyright laws protect expressions of ideas as opposed to an idea in themselves. For example, the idea that one wants to compose music cannot be protected. However, if someone enacts the idea and composes music – that composition can be protected.
Literary works like books, screenplays, etc, dramatic works, musical works, artistic works, cinematograph films, and sound recordings among other creative expressions are protected under copyright laws of this country. Plagiarism is a form of copyright infringement.
Copyright laws offer protection in two forms: economic rights and moral rights. As advocate Dr Farrukh Khan succinctly put it, “Bathroom singing of a song will not attract copyright laws; but if I sing the song for money, then I violate the copyrights of the song’s composer.”
Under copyright laws, moral rights protect the relationship between an author/creator with their work as soon as it is created without providing any economic benefit. Moral rights also give an author/creator complete ownership of their work with the added right to remove or modify their work. Unlike copyrights, moral rights cannot be transferred they can only be waived away by the author.
This means that even if the author sells his work, or sells the copyright to his work, he still has moral rights over it.
However, the provision for ‘fair dealings’ and ‘fair usage’ under copyright laws allows for certain copyright material to be reproduced without permission. The laws allow exceptions for certain activities like education, personal research, teaching, and reporting the news. The lawmakers included this material with the intention to help inculcate scientific growth and for educational purposes.
Can an idea be copyrighted?
No. Several legal experts have said an idea cannot be copyrighted. One cannot lay its sole claim on an idea.
“Copyright does not subsist in an idea by itself. It is only the original expression of an idea in a tangible form which can be copyrighted,” advocate Kaushik Moitra, Partner – Bharucha & Partners, told BOOM.
“For example, the mere idea of a short film will not have any copyright in it until the idea is expressed in some manner, for example, in writing as a script or a summary, and, or, in video or audio format. Essentially, for copyright, the idea must be a) Original, and b) Expressed in some physical form,” Moitra said.
Referring to the Humans of New York vs. Humans of Bombay vs. People of India issue, Dr Farrukh Khan said a moral compass is very different from a legal compass.
The matter is unique in the sense, that while HOB is seeking to protect its content from being stolen, HONY can take the higher ground since its very idea – the storytelling format, was stolen from it in the first place.
“Everything that is immoral is not necessarily illegal,” Khan told BOOM.
In the HOB-POI case, HOB is simply seeking to protect its content and must prove that its content has been copied. However, if HONY ever decides to sue HOB, the courts will have to consider if the storytelling format that made HONY so popular can be protected under copyright laws, Khan added.
“With the advancement in technology, while access to content and thus plagiarism has increased, it has also become easier to track and identify such instances of infringement, Moitra said. “Given that content production has become a high-value business, the significance of enforcing one’s copyright in their work has also increased accordingly, he added.
Khan agreed that it was very easy to copy content from digital media. The rise in content creation on digital media has parallel rise to the applicability of copyright laws. Digital media and content creation have provided the proverbial fodder for lawyers to work on, Khan said.
But Khan cautioned that copyright laws are not so clear cut. Under copyright laws, the creator must prove that his work has been copied atom by atom, molecule by molecule, Khan said.
One also has to consider the economic cost of pursuing infringement rights cases. “A client has to see where the loss is,” Khan said. “Say my client artwork is being copied and sold on the streets – here the economic loss would be minimal. However, if the same artwork is being reproduced and sold in stores at an enormous profit, the loss is substantial,” Khan said.
In such cases, a client must decide which avenue he wants to pursue for litigation.
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