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Intellectual Property Rights and Ethical Dilemmas in the Digital Age

By - King Stubb & Kasiva on October 16, 2023

Introduction:

In the age of the internet and social media, the concept of intellectual property rights and the ethical boundaries of content creation and sharing have become increasingly complex. A recent controversy involving three individuals and their respective initiatives - Humans of Bombay, People of India, and Humans of New York - highlights the nuanced challenges surrounding originality, inspiration, and legalities in the digital space.

The Humans of Bombay (‘HoB’) project, founded by Karishma Mehta in 2014, was inspired by the groundbreaking Humans of New York (‘HoNY’) initiated by Brandon Stanton in 2010. Both projects sought to capture and share the authentic stories, struggles, and successes of people in their respective cities, Mumbai, and New York. Over time, both garnered large followings on various social media platforms, emphasising the universal appeal of storytelling through photography.

However, the controversy erupted when Karishma Mehta filed a case of plagiarism against People of India (‘PoI’), led by Drishti Saxena, accusing PoI of replicating HoB's unique storytelling format, style, content, and even using HoB’s photographs. This dispute raises the issue regarding a copyright infringement dispute between HoB and PoI, both of which are platforms that share stories of people living in their respective cities, Mumbai and India. The controversy also involves HoNY, a similar project started by Brandon Stanton in 2010.

Background:

Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project gained widespread popularity for its candid portraits and stories of people in New York City. It was launched in 2010, and Karishma Mehta founded Humans of Bombay in 2014, which followed a similar concept to HoNY, sharing stories of individuals in Mumbai. HoB, like HoNY, gained a significant following on social media.

The dispute centres around alleged copyright infringement, where HoB may have used content or ideas that were originally created by HoNY or others without proper attribution or permission. Brandon Stanton expressed his discontent with HoB’s[1] decision to file a lawsuit over similar issues of appropriation or copyright infringement. He had previously been quiet about the appropriation of his work by HoB, acknowledging that it shared essential stories. However, he criticised HoB for taking legal action against others for similar reasons.

The situation is a matter of intellectual property rights and the ethical considerations surrounding the use of someone else's creative work without proper acknowledgment or permission. Legal actions related to copyright infringement can be complex and depend on the specific circumstances and laws in place. The controversy has garnered attention on social media, with various individuals and communities discussing the ethical and legal aspects of this case, particularly in the context of the popular Humans of New York project and its impact on similar initiatives like Humans of Bombay.

Dispute:

The heart of the matter revolves around intellectual property rights in the digital age. It forces us to contemplate whether concepts, storytelling formats, and even the emotional resonance of a project can be protected as intellectual property. In a world where ideas spread rapidly through the internet, defining the boundaries of intellectual property becomes a complex challenge.

While legal actions can provide recourse for copyright infringement, the ethical considerations surrounding creative inspiration and adaptation are equally important. Brandon Stanton's response to the controversy highlights this aspect. He acknowledged that HoB shared important stories but criticised the decision to sue others for similar reasons. This raises questions about whether ethical concerns should take precedence over legal actions.

The controversy gained significant traction on social media platforms, with X (formerly Twitter) serving as a prominent battleground for discussions. The public's reaction to this dispute underscores the role of social media in shaping narratives and influencing public opinion. It also demonstrates the power of the online community to engage in debates related to intellectual property and ethical dilemmas.

Creative works often draw inspiration from predecessors, and this is manageable. The challenge lies in striking a balance between being inspired by others' work and producing something unique and original. In this case, the dispute raises questions about how closely one project can resemble another before it crosses the line into plagiarism. Copyright infringement claims require a nuanced evaluation of whether the use of content or ideas constitutes fair use or plagiarism. Legal actions in such cases can have far-reaching consequences, potentially stifling creativity or setting precedents for the digital creative landscape.

Consequences:

On September 18, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to the People of India, signalling the gravity of the dispute. During the hearing, Justice Pratibha Singh pointed out substantial imitations, including identical photographs, which further underscored the seriousness of the allegations made by Humans of Bombay. The court’s involvement highlights the legal complexities surrounding copyright infringement and the need for a thorough examination of the case.

Following the legal proceedings, Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York, weighed in on the controversy through a post on a social media platform referred to as X. Stanton’s post expressed his discomfort with Humans of Bombay’s decision to sue others for alleged plagiarism. He acknowledged that he had stayed quiet on the appropriation of his work by HoB, citing the importance of sharing meaningful stories.

However, he questioned the ethics of suing others for actions he had previously forgiven. In the wake of the lawsuit and Brandon Stanton’s post, Karishma Mehta, the founder of Humans of Bombay, faced severe backlash and trolling on various social media platforms. One particular post humorously compared the situation to competing counterfeit brands, highlighting the irony of the dispute.

In response to Brandon Stanton’s post, Humans of Bombay issued a statement asserting that he should have equipped himself with all the facts of the case before making any judgments. They expressed shock at what they perceived as a cryptic assault on their efforts to protect their intellectual property. The statement emphasised the importance of understanding the background of the case. It raised questions about the ethics of publicly critiquing a legal dispute without a complete understanding of the facts.

Relevance of the case:

The case highlights the importance of safeguarding intellectual property rights in the digital age. It underscores the necessity of legal recourse when copyright infringement is suspected. The involvement of the Delhi High Court underscores the gravity of the issue. The controversy prompts a broader conversation about ethical considerations in the creative process. It raises questions about the boundaries of inspiration, imitation, and adaptation in the context of digital content creation.

The role of social media in shaping public opinion and discourse is evident in this case. It illustrates how platforms like X (formerly Twitter) can amplify controversies and influence public perception. The case highlights the complexities of copyright law in an era where content can be easily shared and adapted. It calls attention to the blurred lines between inspiration and imitation. The dispute involving Humans of Bombay, People of India, and Humans of New York underscores the need for a balanced approach that respects the rights of content creators while also fostering a culture of creative innovation and adaptation in the digital age.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, the controversy involving Humans of Bombay, People of India, and Humans of New York serves as a microcosm of the broader debates surrounding intellectual property rights and ethical considerations in the digital age. It prompts us to reflect on the delicate balance between protecting creative works and allowing for the organic evolution of ideas and storytelling formats. While legal avenues exist to address copyright infringement, it is equally essential to engage in ethical conversations about creative inspiration and adaptation in the digital space, recognising that these discussions are central to the ever-evolving landscape of digital creativity and content sharing.

FAQs

What did Humans of Bombay (HoB) accuse People of India (PoI) of in the dispute?

HoB accused PoI of replicating their storytelling format, style, content, and even using their photographs, alleging copyright infringement.

What role did social media platforms, such as X, play in this controversy?

Social media platforms played a significant role in amplifying the controversy, shaping public opinion, and facilitating discussions on intellectual property and ethics.

How did Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York (HoNY), respond to the controversy?

Brandon Stanton criticized HoB for taking legal action against others for similar reasons and questioned the ethics of suing others for actions he had previously forgiven.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/09/26/humans-of-bombay-lawsuit-explained/

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