BuzzFeed Hit With $3.6 Million Copyright Suit

A blog about business and economics.
June 18 2013 1:25 PM

$3.6 Million Worth of Copyright Violation Litigation Against BuzzFeed That Will Kill Your Faith in IP Law

Founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti speaks at the Wired Business Conference: Think Bigger, at Museum of Jewish Heritage, May 7, 2013 in New York City.
Founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti speaks at the Wired Business Conference: Think Bigger, at Museum of Jewish Heritage, May 7, 2013 in New York City.

Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for WIRED

Idaho photographer Kai Eiselein is suing BuzzFeed for $3.6 million, accusing it of not only using his photo without authorization but also of "contributory infringement" charges because BuzzFeed encourages content sharing.

I am not a lawyer, but since Slate regularly deals with the whole question of posting images on the Internet I feel like I've gotten a decent handle on the law here. The basic consensus around these parts is that the contributory infringement claim is dubious, but that BuzzFeed's legal theory for why it's OK for them to lift content like Eiselein's is also dubious. BuzzFeed essentially relies on a "fair use" theory that says their construction of listicles is a transformative use of images, so they can freely use copyrighted material without permission. This is, shall we say, not an interpretation of fair use that any publication I've ever worked at is comfortable with.


Now, a different question is whether fair use should be broadened in this way. I am in general not a huge fan of stringent copyright protection, and I think that the BuzzFeed case underscores an important part of the economics of copyright. The theory behind copyright is that granting monopoly profits to creators will create incentives for creation. And it does. But copyright also massively raises the input costs of creation. Since Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain and Batman is not, it is much cheaper to make a TV show about the former than the latter. It's not obvious to me whether making the rule BuzzFeed prefers would lead to more content-creation or less. Under their rules, creation would be less lucrative but it would also be cheaper.

Another issue is hassle costs. A colleague proposed a mandatory licensing scheme for Internet images so that people whose photos other people want to grab can get some money, but would-be grabbers can still move quickly. That seems like a pretty good idea to me. But until we have it, I'll keep relying on the invaluable Creative Commons search function and keep paying it forward by tagging my own photos as Creative Commons licensed.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.