“You can’t be suing people for what I’ve forgiven you for,” Stanton said Saturday in a tweet aimed at Humans of Bombay that has since been viewed over 4 million times on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
What is the Humans of Bombay controversy?
Humans of Bombay has filed a claim against People of India, a similar photography platform, for copyright infringement in Delhi’s High Court. On Sept. 18, the court issued a summons order in the case. In the order, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, the court said that a preliminary review of evidence submitted by Humans of Bombay suggested “substantial imitation” of its content.
Humans of Bombay was founded in 2014 by Karishma Mehta, initially as a Facebook page. It has since grown and now has 2.7 million followers on Instagram. People of India, which began posting on Instagram in March 2019, has 1.5 million followers on its English-language page, as well as a second account that posts in Hindi.
Humans of New York features striking portraits of people on the street, alongside carefully crafted captions that tell the inspiring life stories of everyday men and women. The format has helped raise money for those in need — spawning what New York Magazine called an “Empire of Empathy.”
Both Humans of Bombay and People of India tend to post photos and videos of people and share their stories, in a format that is reminiscent of Humans of New York. The posts run the gamut from harrowing and deeply personal accounts of health problems, poverty and assault, to inspirational posts about entrepreneurship and relationships. Also like Humans of New York, Humans of Bombay has promoted fundraisers for some of the individuals whose stories it features.
What is People of India being sued for?
Humans of Bombay alleges that People of India is an “identical portal/service” that has “replicated a large number of images and videos,” according to the order by the Delhi High Court.
Humans of Bombay also alleged that People of India has “completely replicated” its business model, according to court documents.
The court summons contained screenshots, submitted by Humans of Bombay, that appear to show at least a dozen instances in which People of India posted videos or photos that appear to be similar to those on the Humans of Bombay account. The images on the complaint were grainy and The Post could not independently verify their authenticity.
Dev Saif Gangjee, an intellectual property expert at Oxford University, said in an email that while “copyright law protects detailed expression — the literal story on the page; the actual text of paragraphs and illustrations,” it “cannot protect an idea or approach to doing business,” because that would be “too abstract.”
In the past, Humans of Bombay has posted content in collaboration with major brands including Netflix, OkCupid and WhatsApp. Humans of Bombay states on its website that the partnerships — which it says have garnered millions of impressions — have resulted in increased app downloads and created “buzz” around particular products.
Mehta in a YouTube interview in July said that the Humans of Bombay umbrella includes a branding agency and a YouTube show. She said she wanted Humans of Bombay to stop “selling ads in the future” and to focus instead on “storytelling and meaningful conversations.”
Mehta declined to comment when reached by text on Monday.
The case will next be heard on Oct. 11.
What has Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton said about ‘appropriation?’
The court case attracted international attention after Stanton publicly rebuked Humans of Bombay in a statement, accusing the account of appropriating his work and of monetizing a format that has earned him a global following for empathy-driven storytelling.
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. https://t.co/0jZM05YyTt
— Brandon Stanton (@humansofny) September 23, 2023
Stanton — who says he hasn’t received any money for the stories he posts on Humans of New York, though he receives money for his books and speeches and from supporters — criticized accounts that, though inspired by his original idea, monetize the stories they feature.
“I cannot provide an informed opinion on the intricacies of copyright law, but I do have an opinion on what it means to be an artist,” he said in an emailed statement to The Post, adding that art motivated first and foremost by profit “ceases to become art.”
“I welcome anyone who is using the ‘Humans of’ concept to express something true and/or beautiful about their community. I do not identify with anyone who is using it for the sake of creating a certain lifestyle for themselves,” he said, in response to a request about Humans of Bombay’s case.
On social media, many Indians echoed Stanton’s criticism, with some arguing that the Humans of Bombay account is conceptually the same as Humans of New York — not least because Humans of Bombay has the same tag line as Humans of New York, “one story at a time,” in its Instagram bio.
What about all the other spinoffs?
Humans of New York has inspired many similar Instagram accounts around the world that share stories of people in a particular country, city, school or affinity group.
The models they follow vary, and most have smaller followings than Humans of New York. But Stanton has praised at least one for staying faithful to his original concept: Humans of Amsterdam, launched about a decade ago by Dutch photographer Debra Barraud.
“Debra has stayed so true to the art, and has never viewed the stories that she shares as the “front end” of a business,” he said. On her website, Barraud said she was “inspired by Humans of New York and Humans of Tel Aviv” to create Humans of Amsterdam. In a statement on Monday, she said “there would be no Humans of Amsterdam without Humans of New York.”