The Humans of Bombay Controversy: Storytelling and Ethics

The digital storytelling space has recently been filled with heated disputes and conjectures, all centred around the copyright charges made by Humans of Bombay (HoB), a popular Indian storytelling platform. Their legal target? People of India (PoI), another online platform, that has recently been accused of replicating it.

This legal struggle has not only piqued the interest of the digital media sector, but it has also involved a popular New York-based storytelling platform, Humans of New York (HoNY). This conversation has shed light on the complexities of intellectual property rights, creative inspiration, and the ever-evolving world of digital storytelling. We will look at some of the significant participants, talk about the critical issues, and consider the broader consequences as we go deeper into the complexities of the story, leaving both the storytelling community and legal experts in deep contemplation.

The Origins of Humans in Bombay

Karishma Mehta built Humans of Bombay as an informal Facebook community committed to chronicling the lives of common Mumbaikars. What distinguished HoB was its unique storytelling strategy, which presented narratives in an engaging photo-blog format. Over the years, HoB has caught the attention of approximately two million readers and grown in a short span of time.

Navigating the Worlds of Copyright, Creativity, and Commercialisation

Humans of Bombay (HoB) was accused of more than simply copyright violations. Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York (HoNY), chimed in with his own criticism. Stanton publicly questioned HoB’s actions, implying that HoNY had inspired HoB.

Expert OpinionSandhya Surendran, Entertainment, Media & Tech Lawyer

Sandhya Surendran, an Entertainment, Media and Tech lawyer, shared her legal thoughts on the fundamental copyright issues at the heart of the HoB/PoI debate.

She pointed out that HoB’s claim against PoI is built on content plagiarism, with PoI allegedly copying HoB’s content. There are precedents in copyright infringement lawsuits; thus, this is not an unusual instance. The unique expression of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, is protected under copyright law.

Sandhya stresses the delicate distinction between inspiration and plagiarism in response to Brandon Stanton’s criticism of HoB for being inspired by HoNY. Copyright law does not protect ideas; it only protects the distinctive expression of those ideas. She outlined that HoB’s business characteristics, such as partnership payments, are distinct from the copyright dispute. Ethical issues about HoB’s business strategy have no bearing on the copyright claims, which are centred on alleged content copying.

The Ethical Dilemma 

The decision to sue ‘People of India’ for copyright infringement while also deriving inspiration from Humans of New York is a clear contradiction. HoB says that PoI is “replicating their business model,” however, this stance confuses people even more regarding the whole area. This act not only exposes a lack of integrity but also violates the core principles of honest storytelling. It’s also disappointing to see a platform that was created on the basis of sharing true, heartful human stories resort to legal action instead of cultivating a collaborative and supportive atmosphere within the storytelling community.

The choice of whether or not to press charges against ‘People of India’ for copyright infringement while citing Humans of New York as inspiration poses moral dilemmas. Sandhya highlights that the case’s ethical and legal aspects are distinct. HoB’s efforts may or may not have an effect on the outcome of the case, but they raise concerns about the integrity and originality of the narrative.

Influence, Politics, and Commercialisation

Brandon Stanton’s criticism of Humans of Bombay points out the growing commercialisation, which deviates from its initial appeal. When we consider the commercial aspect of the platform, the drama surrounding HoB’s lawsuit against PoI takes an intriguing turn. It has been found that HoB levies a fee, of two lakh rupees (or more) for each post, from brands and individuals who choose to collaborate with them. It’s worth noting that this rate is from six years ago.

It’s another monetary revelation that adds a mysterious layer to the current saga. But what really confuses this discussion is the claim that HoB is a “rip-off” of Brandon Stanton’s exceptional Humans of New York (HoNY). While many first assumed HoB was a part of HoNY’s India chapter, this finding calls that idea into question.

The widespread marketing of human experiences also throws scepticism on the authenticity of the shared stories. Journalist Kunal Purohit adds to the issue by mentioning HoB’s staging of a five-part interview with Prime Minister Modi in 2019, timed before the general election. This raises questions about the platform’s engagement in overt right-wing political advocacy, casting doubt on its editorial judgment and fairness.

Sandhya Surendran believes that, ideally, HoB’s involvement in hosting the political interview should not affect the final outcome of the copyright dispute, while its potential influence is unclear.

Lessons for the Community of Storytellers

Sandhya persists by underlining the critical importance of developing original content and seeking permission when utilising the works of others. Even in the narrative, the copyright must be maintained. This discussion can be viewed as a reminder to tread carefully between real narrative and commercialisation while maintaining integrity and respect for intellectual property rights.

In Retrospect

The HoB Incident reveals the relevancy and complexities of narratives in our connected society. Aside from the legal complexities and controversies, it also urges us to take another look at creativity, intellectual property, and ethical storytelling. This case challenges us to strike a balance between true narrative and commercialisation, reinforcing the need for integrity in storytelling. It inspires storytellers to remain committed to crafting narratives that resonate, inspire, and connect beyond the bounds of copyright and business.

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