“BuzzFeed has been caught repeatedly stealing ideas, jokes, bits, gags, and therefore money from prominent YouTube creators,” Hughes wrote, in a popular Change.org petition addressed to the site’s advertisers and signed, as of this writing, more than 5,500 times. “This is a deliberate initiative on BuzzFeed’s behalf to undermine the hard work of independent comedians, creators, and innovators.”
Other creators apparently agree: Hughes is compiling lists of artists, comedians and other creatives who feel — rightly or wrongly — that their ideas have been vacuumed up by Buzzfeed. That list includes J. Lopez Kenji-Alt, the James Beard Award-winning food writer who accused the video department’s food vertical of lifting his halal chicken recipe; Creature, an all-lady comedy troupe that has actually filmed a tongue-in-cheek paean to Buzzfeed; and Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers, two of YouTube’s most popular LGBT vloggers, who say the site regularly repackages their material in its listicles. On the very day Hughes’s petition went viral, in fact, Kam and Chambers spotted a still from one of their videos, shared — without permission — on Buzzfeed’s Snapchat.
“We can’t stand what Buzzfeed has done to independent content creators,” Kam said. “It’s a shame. There’s so much money and recognition that shouldn’t be going to them.”
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti reiterated the company’s commitment to YouTube creators — including the dozens currently employed by the company.
“We support independent creators and want to do more to support them and collaborate with them,” he said.
Accusations of idea and content theft aren’t totally unheard of at Buzzfeed, the new media juggernaut that made an industry out of mining the social Web for re-boostable material. In the site’s early years, it earned a reputation for sourcing photos from Reddit and Flickr under questionable circumstances. But this latest uproar is aimed specifically at Buzzfeed Motion Pictures, the younger, shinier, West-Coast wing of the Buzzfeed empire — and its implications are far more complex.
Since launching in August 2014 — right on the heels of a $50 million venture capital investment — BMP has become both a patron to online creators and a powerhouse for online video content. The division operates like many small-time indie producers do, churning out short, low-budget, zeitgeisty videos with titles like “If Disney Princes Were Real” (60 million views) and “Men Watch Porn With Porn Stars” (almost 21 million). But because it has a four-acre lot on Sunset Boulevard, an industry-leading data team and a staff of 200 video producers — many of them former YouTubers — Buzzfeed Motion Pictures churns out viral videos at an almost industrial scale. The department averages upwards of 75 clips per week across their various color-coded channels, and monthly views long ago surpassed 1 billion.
That sort of platform has been a boon to many performers, who might have labored in obscurity for years on their own: Buzzfeed Motion Pictures can claim to have launched the careers of the Try Guys, Ashley Perez and Matt Bellassai, among others. The company has also provided one-off guest-starring gigs, paid residencies and full-time jobs to up-and-coming performers, like the comedians Brittany Ashley and Gaby Dunn.
But the relationship between Buzzfeed Motion Pictures and some of its online stars has began to curdle at the edges in recent months, soured by creative and contractual disagreements. Popular minority vloggers, like the trans YouTube star Kat Blaque and the duo Kam and Chambers, complained that the company regularly brought talent in to “consult” or “guest star,” but never actually paid for it. (Buzzfeed has also hired paid consultants from those communities.)
Meanwhile, in-house creators like Dunn conceded that the company “helped pay bills yes,” but also exploited young creators through unusually restrictive contracts. Among other things, BMP required that its talent work on no other projects while employed there, and that they sign over the rights to their name and likeness. Just last month, Buzzfeed fired two of its top stars, Ashley and Jenny Lorenzo, for working on a side project; in the uproar that followed, BMP was forced to remind staff that — no matter how independent they’d been before — they and all their work now belonged to corporate.
For some YouTubers, who pioneered and advocated a new model of decentralized, participatory media, Buzzfeed’s declaration wasn’t merely HR-speak: It confirmed creeping anxieties that they’d harbored for several years. Despite Buzzfeed’s lip service to independent creators — both at the corporate level and in its giddy coverage of viral stars — people like Dunn had long worried the company didn’t actually have their best interests at heart. In fact, as Buzzfeed Motion Pictures grew both more powerful and more prolific, it seemed obvious that it posed an existential threat to the creators who paved the way for it.
Cue Akilah Hughes and her 119,000 YouTube fans, who last week noticed Buzzfeed’s “Perfect Weekend for an Introvert” had cleared half a million views in its first day online. Both that video, and Hughes’ “How to Be an Introvert,” involve a woman spending the weekend under her comforter with Netflix. The idea is not a particularly original one; it doesn’t even appear that Hughes was the first to have it. The trope has appeared in Buzzfeed videos going back several years. But given the ongoing tensions between Buzzfeed and YouTubers, Hughes was convinced the company owed her something, even something as small as a quick Google search to see who else had done that exact introvert/Netflix gag in the past.
Still, critics argue, if Buzzfeed was going to profit off a video in the same style and on the same platform, thereby making any other versions irrelevant, couldn’t they at least throw a link to the Eh Bee Family? Or this adorable Australian kid?
“Before we shoot any sketch, we extensively Google and search on YouTube to make sure we’re not copying or coming close to material already mined by other creators,” said one YouTuber who felt Buzzfeed should have credited her work — one of several who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity, because they believed badmouthing Buzzfeed could hurt their careers.
“Buzzfeed has an enormous staff,” she continued. “It’s incredibly hard to believe that they couldn’t take the small amount of time to see if the concept had been done before. In fact, it’s my opinion that they did look, saw that we are a speck by comparison, and did it anyway. Who is going to care or notice?”
To be clear, this is not a copyright issue: No one can legally claim to “own” an idea or a joke, and YouTube would be a no man’s land if they could. That culture has always thrived on a certain amount of (occasionally credited) remixing and reuse, and it’s next to impossible to trace the evolution of an idea in YouTube’s roiling meme pool.
But there’s a pervasive sense that while that’s okay amongst fellow independent creators, who have similar resources, it represents a kind of appropriation when producers employed by Buzzfeed do it. There they may have a point, says Patricia Aufderheide, a professor of communications studies at American University. She and her colleague Peter Jaszi, with whom she collaborates at the Center for Media and Social Impact, point out that “a certain amount of casual theft” is inevitable in creative work, and that no one can reasonably claim to “own” something as broad and well-traveled as the introvert meme.
But Buzzfeed and other corporate media organizations also occupy a special position, Aufderheide argues, and thus can be thought to have special ethical responsibilities.
“If Buzzfeed’s in love with something about someone’s work, which inspires them to do something, how can some tip of hat, some credit, some acknowledgement, be made?” She asked. “The fact that so many of the outraged people are people of color/women might be even more of a reason why Buzzfeed and other media organizations could figure out how to acknowledge their actual lived relationships in a dynamic media production environment.”
Buzzfeed Motion Pictures doesn’t appear to agree: On Twitter, its staff have been dismissive, even flippant, in the face of widespread criticism. Zach Kornfeld, one of BMP’s in-house stars, tweeted that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both came up with calculus. (“Pretty nuts how that happened. But it happens.”) Jared Sosa, another BMP employee, was a little more direct: “No one stole s***. Everyone needs to try to be less predictable,” he tweeted.
One thing we can confidently predict: The battle between independent and corporate YouTube creators is only just getting started.