‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’: The HOB controversy

‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’: The HOB controversy

One wonders what Queen Gertrude in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet would have said about the ongoing Humans of Bombay controversy, but I suspect her original comment, in response to a character’s insincere overacting, wouldn’t be off the mark.

The background, in case you live under a rock: The Delhi High Court recently issued a summons to the storytelling platform, ‘People of India’ in a copyright infringement suit by its better-known rival ‘Humans of Bombay’ (HOB). The suit for copyright infringement gathered social media attention after the founder of Humans of New York (HONY), Brandon Stanton, jumped in.

Stanton flagged Karishma Mehta, founder and manager of the HOB website, in a post for suing “people for something I’ve forgiven you for” and claimed, “they’ve monetised far past anything I’d feel comfortable doing on HONY.”

Humans of Bombay hit back, accusing Stanton of launching a “cryptic assault” against their efforts to protect “their intellectual property.” At this point everyone and his aunt jumped in, and I have nothing to add. However… Humans Of Bombay has a very good chance of taking People Of India to the cleaners. The latter DID rip off original content, without permission.

HOB runs a legit content business of telling people stories and monetising the platform. They may have copied the name and the broad operating outlines, but so what? In India almost everyone copies everyone’s IDEA. We do not, as a culture, value originality; we only value successful outcomes. Almost all Indian start-ups are US clones. In some cases they’ve become bigger than the original. The HOB lady was a little holier than thou in her initial reaction, and may have overreacted — can blame that on immaturity. It’s a wake-up call for the content creation industry.

Does anyone remember the case where a Canadian Sikh-owned company called Aero Shoes launched Woodland in Delhi in the early ’90s? Many felt they were rather similar to Timberland shoes. So eyebrows went up when Aero sued the 100-year-old Timberland for copyright violation (the cheek!) — and won.

’80s kids may remember the David Bowie/Queen super-hit, Under Pressure. A rapper called Vanilla Ice ripped off the bass lines from Under Pressure, for his super-hit Ice Ice Baby. Queen took him to the cleaners and won.

Now, for the bizarre: A record label, Fantasy Records, once sued John Fogerty for sounding like the Creedence Clearwater Revival’s lead singer — which was John Fogerty himself, in a song he had written and performed decades earlier for CCR. The judge sided with Fogerty, saying, “you can’t plagiarise yourself”. The bigger issue with content companies is a fast erosion of brand identity.

Now for some gyaan.

Thanks to the overexposure on social media, there is a gradual weakening of what we call brand values.

The primary reason is market saturation: In crowded markets, where numerous brands offer similar products or services, it becomes challenging to maintain a distinct identity.

Next is complacency: There are too many content brands that have become complacent and stopped striving for excellence… and may lose their competitive edge and, consequently, their identity.

There are too many brand extensions: Expanding into unrelated product categories or making a mad dash for events can confuse consumers and dilute the brand’s identity. You can see that happening with content houses all the time.

By the way, I like the content of Humans of Bombay — it’s original. If they make money out of it, what’s the problem? Nothing unethical about making money from content. Finally, yes the lady doth protest too much. And the lady isn’t Karishma Mehta, it’s everyone in the content business.

(Shubho Sengupta is a digital marketer with an analogue ad agency past. He can be found @shubhos)


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