Decoding the Case: Humans of Bombay Vs People of India

In a social media post that now has over 4 million views, Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York, called out Humans of Bombay for filing a lawsuit for what he has “forgiven” them for, indicating his storytelling model being adopted by the latter. Responding to Stanton’s post, the Indian photoblog issued a statement to clarify the matter and point out that its lawsuit did not concern the concept of storytelling but was instituted to protect its intellectual property rights, specifically copyright.

The Controversy

Stanton’s statements have been widely quoted by several media houses and influencers leading the public to form strong opinions on the matter. Overlooking the issues involved in the case before the Delhi High Court, the media has focused on the ownership of the “Humans of .…” photoblog concept, with many hailing it as Stanton’s work and accusing Humans of Bombay of copying the concept and taking legal action against People of India for doing the same.

This article aims to demystify the core issues surrounding the controversy and shed light on the associated IP rights.

Battle of Titles: Humans of New York Vs. Humans of Bombay

A quick search conducted in both the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) registry and the Indian Trademark Registry reveals that a trademark has indeed been registered under Stanton’s name for “Humans of New York” in the United States. However, this does not hold for India.

Given that trademark rights are inherently territorial, it becomes evident that “Humans of New York” will not have grounds to file a trademark infringement case against “Humans of Bombay” in India; however, a passing-off and misrepresentation case can be made out, if required.

Considering that the term “Humans of….” may be considered a descriptive term, it will be interesting to see how the courts interpret such a case if contested.  

Storytelling Concept / Business Idea

Since 2010, Humans of New York has been a storytelling platform which showcases the stories of individuals who share brief interviews that delve into their life experiences, the challenges they’ve confronted, and the steps they’ve taken to surmount these challenges.

It is important to mention here that copyright law doesn’t protect an idea; instead, it is the expression of an idea that is protected. Further, copyright does not protect a business idea because, if done, it will create a monopoly in the market and stop any third person from creating/operating a business.

Therefore, even though the concept may have been introduced through “Humans of New York”, no copyright over such a concept can be claimed. 

The Actual Issue: Humans of Bombay Vs. People of India

The plaintiff, Humans of Bombay Stories Pvt. Ltd., owns a platform through which it shares the life stories of various individuals. These stories are published as posts, write-ups, interviews, etc.

It came to the plaintiff’s notice that an Instagram handle (@officialpeopleofindia) operated by the defendant was hosting content identical to that of the plaintiff, including images and videos. Further, they’ve been interviewing the same subjects whose stories were published by the plaintiff.

Hence, the plaintiff filed a suit before the Delhi High Court on September 14, 2023, seeking an injunction against the defendants on account of copyright infringement of its content, including photographs, literary works, films, and creative expressions published on its website and social media platforms. In support of its contentions, the plaintiff attached a series of screenshots of social media posts and photographs as annexures to its plaint, to indicate the imitation.

The plaintiff seems to have endeavoured to address the issue amicably before taking recourse under the law.

Replication of Stories  

The plaintiff submitted that the defendants replicated its stories, which amounted to copyright infringement. Additionally, in its plaint, the plaintiff averred that the similarities in the content constituted passing off and unfair competition, considering that the defendants have been banking on the goodwill that has been “painstakingly built by the plaintiff”.

Referring to the efforts that go into storytelling, the plaintiff asserted that its team is engaged in conducting substantial research, approaching several subjects, converting stories into audio-video works and uploading them on the website and social media platforms.

Prima Facie Case of Imitation and Court’s Order

With respect to the lawsuit, the Court directed that a summons be issued to the defendants, also requiring submission of the written statement within 30 days.[1]

Upon perusal of the annexures attached to the plaint, the Court observed that prima facie, there was “substantial imitation”, and in some instances, the images were “identical or imitative”. With this, the Court directed that notice be issued to the defendants that the application for interim relief would be considered on the next date of hearing.

The matter will be heard next on October 11, 2023.

Takeaways

A mere glance at the posts published on the Instagram handle of People of India readily reveals the striking similarities and, in certain instances, outright replication of House of Bombay’s content. As mentioned above, the Delhi High Court, in its admission dated September 18, 2023, acknowledged the existence of a prima facie case for imitation.

While it appears to be a straightforward case of potential copyright infringement, if proven, a more substantial issue looms regarding the ownership of the business concept over “Humans of ….”. This raises questions about ethical considerations, originality, and misrepresentation within the broader context.

A mere glance at the posts published on the Instagram handle of People of India readily reveals the striking similarities and, in certain instances, outright replication of House of Bombay’s content. As mentioned above, the Delhi High Court, in its admission dated September 18, 2023, acknowledged the existence of a prima facie case for imitation. While it appears to be a straightforward case of potential copyright infringement, if proven, a more substantial issue looms regarding the ownership of the business concept over “Humans of ….”. This raises questions about ethical considerations, originality, and misrepresentation within the broader context.

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