What ‘Humans of Bombay’ vs ‘People of India’ reveals about copyright violations on Meta’s Instagram | Explained

Meta’s involvement in the tussle between photo journalism platforms Humans of Bombay and People of India raises questions about what it takes to make truly original and creative content

October 26, 2023 03:25 pm | Updated 04:14 pm IST

A screengrab of the ‘Humans of Bombay’ website’s homepage

A screengrab of the ‘Humans of Bombay’ website’s homepage | Photo Credit: humansofbombay.in

Story so far: Humans of Bombay (HoB), the Humans of New York offshoot which shares the portraits and stories of people ranging from working class Indians to celebrities on its Instagram account, sued another platform called People of India (PoI), alleging copyright infringement.

HoB’s founder Karishma Mehta said in an X (formerly Twitter) statement on October 11 that the company was driven to take legal steps when reporting the “plagiarism” to Instagram and Facebook-parent Meta did not put an end to it.

Why did HoB reach out to Meta?

HoB has shared the diverse challenges and victories of the people it features across India, whether it is a person who has survived domestic violence and is raising their child in a loving single-parent home, or a person who frequently gets mistaken for Indian cricketer Virat Kohli. The organisation also partners with brands, offers collaboration options, raises money for charitable causes, and has run corporate campaigns. Its Instagram posts can take the form of photos, short-term Stories, video Reels, and interviews. The main HoB Instagram account has about 2.6 million followers.

PoI, which covers Indian stories in a similar fashion and often with Bollywood music running in the background, has about 1.7 million Instagram followers.

HoB said that it reached out to Meta to report plagiarism and that 16 posts were taken down as a result. Mehta’s statement did not mention PoI by name.

“However, it didn’t stop the plagiarism, even after we tried to solve the matter amicably. We were left with no option but to lean on legal counsel,” said HoB.

When news of the lawsuit was first reported in late September, many assumed HoB was suing PoI over its similar storytelling model. This triggered widespread outrage against HoB, with even Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton chiming in to say that HoB had copied his idea and used his photo journalism model for its own ends.

“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,” posted Stanton on X on September 23, resharing a news report about PoI receiving summons from the Delhi High Court.

HoB later clarified that its lawsuit focused on how PoI had allegedly used HoB’s copyrighted media, rather than the storytelling concept.

What is Meta’s policy regarding copyright and original content?

According to Instagram’s copyright policies, only the creators of original work own the copyright to their work. This means that a person who takes a picture of another person owns the copyright to the photo, rather than the person shown in the picture. However, this distinction becomes less clear in the case of old images, or media content that is shared with others for specific purposes, or photos used by news outlets under the fair use doctrine.

“The best way to help make sure that what you post to Instagram doesn’t violate copyright law is to only post content that you’ve created yourself,” said Instagram’s help page for copyright matters. It stated that only the owner or their legal representative could report copyright infringement.

Meta’s photo and video sharing platform also noted that copyright infringement could be a possibility if the user posted content they saw somewhere else online, modified or added on to someone else’s original content, or posted content that they saw someone else had posted - even if the non-creator account added a disclaimer or credited the original owner.

HoB often posts old photos provided by the people it features (such as their childhood shots or wedding pictures), but it also photographs its own subjects, works with in-house writers to present stories, shoots video interviews and promos, and also creates Reels or collages.

Keeping in mind Meta’s copyright policy, the legal tussle between HoB and PoI raises the question of whether the two platforms are original storytellers who create fresh content, or simply story sharers who add on to content shared with them by other original creators.

What has the court said about the case?

HoB provided more than 10 examples of photos posted both by it and PoI, where the images were exactly the same or highly similar. In a filing dated September 18, Justice Prathiba M. Singh said there was evidence of “substantial imitation” and even “identical or imitative” photographs.

During the October 11 Delhi High Court hearing, PoI claimed that HoB copied some of its own photos and provided example shots, pointing out that HoB did not own the copyrights to the images it posted, because the photos came from the people featured on the platform. PoI also defended itself by saying that the people featured on their account sometimes sent their images to both storytelling platforms.

On the same day, the court ordered that both HoB and PoI should not use each other’s copyrighted media but noted that if people sent their own photos to both companies, the two platforms would not be able to claim copyright. Damages were not paid to either party.

However, HoB’s Mehta later claimed that original content created by the HOB team had indeed been published by a non-owner account. Mehta also said in her statement that she and the people around her had received death and rape threats over the issue.

Why has HoB been criticised?

Apart from being slammed for its profit-oriented and corporate approach to digital storytelling, HoB was earlier criticised for the way it portrayed the stories of political figures and celebrities.

For example, a flattering, multi-part interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 resulted in what Mehta called “a whirlwind of hate”. The prime minister is known for not holding press conferences in India and not taking journalists’ questions, instead preferring to address the country through channels like radio shows where he holds full control.

Another incident revolved around HoB’s efforts to raise ₹23 lakhs for a student who needed financial assistance to complete a degree at Harvard University. Internet users pointed out that the student was running more than one fundraiser and that her addresses were not consistent across platforms. HoB insisted that it had vetted the student’s documents and that the campaign was genuine.

The storytelling platform also came under fire for a now deleted post which portrayed the featured person’s domestic workers as charity cases and did not let them speak for themselves. Others have criticised HoB’s more promotional-style posts which cover the stories of celebrities such as actors and industrialists in an uncritically positive light, claiming this dilutes the platform’s coverage of far less privileged individuals.

However, Humans of New York’s Stanton has also interviewed political figures such as Hillary Clinton and former U.S. President Barack Obama. Furthermore, Stanton said he did not receive a penny for his stories, but earned income through books of his work, speeches, and Patreon payments.

HoB has also sold a book based on its work, and both platforms have raised funds for some of the people it interviewed. Mehta defended HoB’s business model and said it had chosen to monetise “primarily through meaningful campaigns with partner brands.”

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