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Plagiarism claims against BuzzFeed Video: a complicated tale of originality on the internet

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In an internet culture where ideas can almost instantly go viral and spawn a thousand imitations, it can be difficult to define what plagiarism looks like — or even what a "rip-off" is. Throw in additional factors like the impossibility of owning an idea and the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, and things get messy fast.

This problem is real even for online media outlets, most prominently BuzzFeed. Allegations that BuzzFeed regularly plagiarizes both other sites and individuals have long dogged the website’s heels. Now BuzzFeed Video is coming under fire from YouTube users and other content creators who are accusing the company of stealing others’ ideas and profiting from them without proper attribution.

Popular YouTube user Akilah Hughes, who’s known for her warm style of vlogging comedy, is leading the charge, accusing BuzzFeed of stealing several of her video concepts. In late June, the hashtag StopBuzzThieves began circulating on Twitter as Hughes, her supporters, and other people who say BuzzFeed Video has stolen their work began to speak out.

But are their complaints valid? Not everyone thinks so — and as always when dealing with internet culture, the situation is complicated.

The controversy started with firings and a protest

BuzzFeed’s video content production company is BuzzFeed Motion Pictures — though to the public, it’s simply known as BuzzFeed Video. On June 23, former BuzzFeed Video staffer Gaby Dunn wrote an opinion piece for Fusion in which she cautioned young writers and creators, particularly women and members of other marginalized groups, not to give away their work. (Disclaimer: Dunn and I were colleagues at the Daily Dot for a nine-month period between 2013 and 2014, before she was hired by BuzzFeed.)

Dunn defended two BuzzFeed Video employees, one queer, one a woman of color, who she claimed were terminated because they had worked as actors on an independent web series that BuzzFeed Video deemed to be in competition with one of its products. Dunn also said that while employed for the company full time, she had felt "trapped" by BuzzFeed’s noncompete restrictions:

I was hired first as on-camera talent and then as a scripted series writer. I was excited to have a steady writing gig and thrilled by the $55,000 annual salary. ... I thought I’d stay a couple of months, find another industry gig, and peace out. I ended up staying eight months because the non-compete caused me to turn down other work and meetings that might have led to other work.

A noncompete clause is a standard part of most salaried full-time jobs in corporate America, and thus it’s arguable that BuzzFeed’s use of one was reasonable. What’s more, Dunn’s admission that she took the relatively lucrative BuzzFeed job with the intention of leaving it after "a couple of months" doesn’t make her sound like the model of a loyal, devoted employee.

However, Dunn also pointed out in her Fusion essay that BuzzFeed continues to profit from her work and her image even today, a year after she left, even though it is no longer paying her:

I left Buzzfeed in 2015, but they still own a Facebook fan page with my face on it. They can promote whatever they want there using my name and image. I still show up on their Snapchat account sometimes. They could conceivably cut together all the videos I made for them into a series, sell that series for millions of dollars using my work and my name and likeness, and not give me a penny or tell me about it at all. All of this is 100% legal.

BuzzFeed Motion Pictures recently published an internal memo, which it then cited in response to Dunn’s Fusion essay. The memo stresses that BuzzFeed requires an exclusive commitment from its creators, and that it owns all content that BuzzFeed employees produce for the site while employed there; just like a noncompete clause, this type of agreement is also a pretty standard element of corporate contracts in the US.

Dunn’s essay explicitly concerned her belief that BuzzFeed prevented Dunn and other employees from creating other kinds of work outside of their day jobs at the site; she did not claim that BuzzFeed stole any of her previously existing work. Nonetheless, the essay sparked a social media conversation about whether BuzzFeed Video is exploitative on a larger scale.

Then noted YouTube creator Akilah Hughes stepped in

On June 29, BuzzFeed launched a video called "Perfect Weekend for an Introvert," which Hughes felt was problematically similar to one of her original videos, "How to Be an Introvert (According to Tumblr)."

The two videos aren’t exactly carbon copies of one another. Though they both chronicle the ways an introvert might spend a weekend at home, Hughes’s is longer, with a more satirical bent; BuzzFeed’s is essentially a short, basic joke about Netflix. Both feature a woman sitting at home with a blanket over her head, and both contain tongue-in-cheek time lapses in which a woman spends an entire weekend in bed, staring at a computer. But there are enough shared elements between the two that Hughes feels she was ripped off.

Hughes also claims this isn’t the first time BuzzFeed has stolen her work:

Her "How Do Black People Feel about [X]?" and BuzzFeed’s "Ask an Asian" are nominally similar in that both videos feature women of color, each snarkily answering a generalized question about her race. But the questions themselves don’t overlap: Hughes’s question is about spring; BuzzFeed’s Jenny Yang answers 11 questions that are all about common racial stereotypes.

Still, Hughes has been relentless in calling for a large-scale response to what she feels is inappropriate and unethical behavior from BuzzFeed. So far, she has created a petition and a Medium post calling for advertisers to stop doing business with the site.

As her tweets about BuzzFeed Video have continued to circulate, more and more people have collected evidence of what they feel is a longstanding pattern of BuzzFeed ripping off or straight-up plagiarizing other content creators — most of whom are women, people of color, or members of other marginalized communities.

Here are three representative examples of the BuzzFeed accusations

Here are three of the most notable instances in which YouTube users and other content creators believe BuzzFeed Video has explicitly plagiarized or copied their work or the work of others.

1) Savannah Hemmig’s "The Diagnosis" vs. BuzzFeed’s "If Physical Health Problems Were Treated Like Mental Health Problems"

YouTube user Savannah Hemmig first blogged about her feeling that BuzzFeed had stolen her work in a Tumblr post published nearly a year ago. In the post, Hemmig revealed that she had shown her video, "The Diagnosis," to BuzzFeed Video directly as part of an application for a summer internship with the company.

BuzzFeed Video declined to hire Hemmig, but a few weeks later Hemmig realized that the outlet had posted a video of its own, "If Physical Health Problems Were Treated Like Mental Health Problems," which Hemmig felt bore remarkable similarities to the one she had shown the company.

noshameinoursickness (Tumblr)

The thesis of Hemmig’s film is "What if we treated all illness the way we treat mental illness?" which is similar to the title of the BuzzFeed video. The BuzzFeed video goes well beyond the diabetes allegory in Hemmig's video and uses more kinds of physical ailments to make its point. But both videos contain shots, framed similarly, of someone injecting an insulin shot into their stomach. And both videos are structured around bystanders reacting to people with physical injuries in ways reflective of stigmas surrounding mental illness.

2) Kid Fury and Crissle West of The Read podcast vs. several different BuzzFeed videos

Over the years, fans of The Read podcast have repeatedly pointed out moments when they feel BuzzFeed stole from the two hosts, Kid Fury and Crissle West. For instance, shortly after West’s epic rant "Say no to fuckboys," BuzzFeed posted an article, "How to tell you’re dating a fuckboy." That’s not the only time fans have perceived BuzzFeed as writing up ideas that seemed to originate from discussions held on the podcast.

In April, Kid Fury and West devoted a segment to criticism of BuzzFeed. Around 1:52:35, West mentions that she’s "seen way too many direct quotes from Kid Fury videos and this show on [BuzzFeed] for me to be raising the flag for [BuzzFeed]," implying that both BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed Video had been stealing direct phrasing and content from the podcast.

"Stop listening to this show and putting our shit on your website," West said. "Stop watching Kid Fury videos and putting his shit, fucking transcripts, on your website. ... You’re using black culture to make your money, and you know it."

3) Cut’s "100 years of beauty" series vs. BuzzFeed’s "[X] Through History" series

smoothiefreak (Tumblr)

Cut’s "100 years of beauty" series is one of those massively viral trendsetters that has spawned a thousand imitators: Mode’s 100 years of fashion, cars, and home improvement (to name just a few); Glamour’s 100 years of underwear; Bon Appétit’s 100 years of brown bag lunches; even Xbox’s 100 years of zombies and Mashable’s 100 years of corgi beauty. So calling out BuzzFeed specifically for its "[X] Through History" series seems a bit unfair, but it was one of the first examples that Hughes and many others thought of.

The accusations against BuzzFeed just kept piling up

Hughes and her supporters gathered more and more evidence of what they claimed were examples of BuzzFeed ripping off creators. Many of these are straightforwardly literal:

Jenna Marbles’s "How Girls Take a Shower" video and BuzzFeed’s "Thoughts You Have While Putting on Makeup."

In addition to all of these, since Hughes began her social media protest, several more accusations have been made concerning BuzzFeed’s main website, rather than just its video company, which are two separate entities under the BuzzFeed umbrella.

These allegations of plagiarism illustrate the elusive origins of internet trends and memes, and the problem of owning an idea

There’s one obvious, major problem with all of these accusations: On an individual level, none of them are really plagiarism. A 2013 video by a vlogger known as Maddox, called "I Hate Buzzfeed," summarizes BuzzFeed’s approach to producing "original" content as a mix of "stolen images, exploited pop trends, and shitty jokes that use worn-out memes."

But that descriptor essentially sums up not just BuzzFeed but the entire nature of publishing on the internet: Just about any content can be aggregated, reposted (with or without attribution), remixed, and built upon in just about any way. All of the videos mentioned in this post so far could be said to fall into the broad category of "pop trends and worn-out memes." Those aren’t actually something you can steal.

Most of the content creators BuzzFeed is accused of plagiarizing didn’t remotely originate their idea, either. For example, many of the other videos have nebulous origins; you can see this in Jenna Marbles’s stream of consciousness–style of humor, which BuzzFeed is accused of thieving even though it has clear roots in Jack Handey’s famous "Deep Thoughts" meme, which predates YouTube by more than two decades. Even Hemmig’s video comparing physical and mental illness is an outgrowth of decades of similar comparisons.

And that cute kid who had his DIY unicorn piñata video ripped off in its entirety by BuzzFeed? He was most likely translating and following nearly duplicate instructions from the crafting blog A Subtle Revelry, which were posted months before his own video.

Basic ideas that do have an origin point, like "100 Ideas of X" and "Will It [X]?" have essentially become internet memes far larger than their original focus; many of the creators BuzzFeed is accused of stealing from have created their own iterations of other videos on the list.

And many of the ideas BuzzFeed is accused of "stealing" don’t even appear to have a definite point of origin. The idea of pitting cats and dogs or waffles and pancakes against each other isn’t exactly new; neither is the image of an introvert sitting at home with a blanket over her head.

The idea of Massachusetts town names being hard to pronounce has popped up in videos dating back at least five years, has existed online since at least 2001, and was reportedly mentioned in a print letter to the Boston Globe dating from 1997. And the Massachusetts town meme is itself part of a larger universal meme — one found everywhere from this 1998 Usenet thread on weird Midwest city names to this other BuzzFeed Video segment on hard-to-pronounce Midwestern town names, published last month.

Even unintentionally, imitation is easy and ubiquitous. Hughes’s own videos are proof of that: Her "What’s in my purse?" video is one of hundreds of similar videos on YouTube, part of a broader meme of revealing what’s in your bag. Her "tipsy book reviews" videos are likewise just a few of hundreds of similar drunk book reviews on YouTube. Her "American attempt at a British accent" certainly isn’t the internet’s first; other examples are easy to find.

Finally, it’s worth noting that BuzzFeed doesn’t ever seem to straightforwardly copy anyone else’s actual content. Even in the video about mental illness, which many have inaccurately described as a shot-for-shot remake of Hemmig’s video, there are significant differences in terms of the way scenes are filmed, the dialogue involved, and the number of subjects discussed. And even though the directions for how to DIY your own unicorn piñata are identical to the previous video, the BuzzFeed video uses stylish editing techniques to condense the original video’s instructions down from six minutes to just a minute and a half.

Journalist Ira Madison minced no words pointing all of this out to angry creators on Twitter:

But many of those who are angry at BuzzFeed argue that BuzzFeed is actively stealing their voice and the voices of other marginalized creators — or that it’s trying to.

BuzzFeed may not have literally plagiarized marginalized voices, but charges that the site has exploited them carry more weight

On June 30, trans vlogger Kat Blaque published a blog post about her experience with BuzzFeed Video. After detailing how she was invited to appear in a BuzzFeed video but not offered any form of payment, Blaque describes being invited to take part in a brainstorming session with other trans creators — again, without any offer to compensate them for their time:

A few months ago, I was contacted by a Trans guy that works at Buzzfeed ... [who] added me to an email chain of some of the hardest working trans people in LA, a lot of whom I’ve either worked with or have known of. He wanted us to all come down to Siren Studios, where Buzzfeed shoots, and brainstorm ideas for trans content for the website. ... One person asked "Are we going to be compensated for our time?" and went into depth about how often trans people work for free or very little and create these things that are profitable for cis consumption, but are never able to see compensation. ... When pressed on this, the trans guy in question said that Buzzfeed "simply didn’t have the budget" for consultants. In response, a fellow trans consultant said that "being able to work for free was a privilege".

Blaque went on to emphasize that BuzzFeed seems to repeatedly target marginalized people of color and queer people for free content or ideas: "While they get rid of creators of color [a reference to the aforementioned termination of a BuzzFeed employee who had appeared in a non-BuzzFeed web series] at the same time, they leach from creators of color outside of BuzzFeed’s employment; and in true BuzzFeed fashion, they don’t ‘have the budget’ to compensate them either."

Blaque’s anecdote echoes Dunn’s concerns that marginalized creators, including women, trans people, and people of color, are pressured to give away their work, and that BuzzFeed has had a major hand in exploiting online content creators. There is obvious reason for concern: History is full of examples of such communities having their creative work appropriated and stolen.

While on an individual level, none of the BuzzFeed videos under discussion seem to be directly appropriative of a trend belonging to a distinct culture, as a collective body of work the examples paint BuzzFeed as derivative and extremely likely to copy content from YouTube users or other online creators. And it’s difficult to ignore the fact that many of these creators are marginalized and/or minorities who are using their content, their work, and their internet spaces to discuss their marginalized identities.

Creators like Dunn and Blaque have spoken out about the difficult economy of making a living as an online content creator. To online content creators who are more concerned with being positive voices in their community than with making a profit, the ability of BuzzFeed, with its many resources, to casually and quickly monetize content they spent time and care crafting, without ever crediting their work, is deeply offensive.

As Hemmig explained:

Unlike BuzzFeed, I never made "The Diagnosis" to make money. I made my short film with a budget of zero dollars and zero cents, and then released it for free on YouTube so that the message could access the audience I felt it deserved. ... For BuzzFeed to cheapen my experience by stuffing my original film into their repetitive video formula and stamping their logo on it is not just plagiarism or taking advantage of a student, it’s extremely disrespectful.

BuzzFeed’s response to the brouhaha didn’t do much to clear the air

As the #StopBuzzThieves tag grew and attracted more attention, Twitter users began pressuring BuzzFeed for a response, and individual BuzzFeed employees began trying to discuss the issue with Hughes. It didn’t really go well. First, the producer for BuzzFeed’s "introvert" video, Zack Evans, responded to Hughes in a now-deleted tweet.

He then followed up with a second apology.

BuzzFeed Video executive producer Ella Mielniczenko also responded to the backlash on Twitter by denying any intentional similarities between BuzzFeed’s videos and those of other content creators, citing instead the "casualties of creating in the same space."

When pressed to clarify what she meant by "same space," she added that she meant "the internet / media at large."

Later, she elaborated in a longer Twitter response in which she noted that BuzzFeed writes about Cut’s "100 years" and other video series on its main website, and claimed that in the case of the "introvert" video BuzzFeed was referencing other older introvert videos it has made in the past as well as an Edgar Wright video. "Yes, it is unfortunate when two creators have the same concept," she wrote, "but ... it will continue to happen for the rest of time."

BuzzFeed’s detractors weren’t satisfied by these responses — particularly since they came from individuals rather than from official BuzzFeed channels.

Hughes doubled down on her accusations, posting a response to Mielniczenko that argued that the camera angles and filming structure in the two introvert videos were similar, and that BuzzFeed should have addressed the accusations that have piled up concerning its videos as a whole, rather than focusing on just two videos out of the many.

Where can BuzzFeed go from here?

At the very least, it seems reasonable that the BuzzFeed Video backlash should prompt the site to rethink the way it sources content. Obviously a total overhaul of the fundamental nature of remixing and borrowing on the internet isn’t going to happen. But merely including a nod in a video to other inspirations and creators who’ve come before BuzzFeed hurts nothing, and could help spread the love.

BuzzFeed and other media outlets that find themselves in similar positions might also consider inviting these creators to be guests on BuzzFeed Videos — but not in an unpaid capacity, like it did with Blaque. Better yet, BuzzFeed could always pay the same content creators whose viral hits they’ve repurposed in the past — but pay them to create new work specifically for BuzzFeed.

Even if BuzzFeed doesn’t intentionally source all of its questionable content from other creators, attribution to other creators who’ve already produced content within the same video memes doesn’t seem like a great hardship.

In Hughes’s mind, the matter of attribution might be more than merely disrespectful; it might well be a matter of life and death. Hughes is battling Lyme disease and recently hosted a Patreon campaign to attempt to offset the mounting cost of her medical bills. Before a medical procedure last Tuesday, she tweeted this grim reminder:

For Hughes and other creators like her, every extra bit of buzz helps.

No one should know that better than BuzzFeed.

Update: Buzzfeed founder & CEO Jonah Peretti has published an extensive response to Hughes on Medium in which he produces evidence for his assertion that most of Hughes' claims are without merit: "[E]ven a cursory investigation shows overwhelmingly that BuzzFeed’s video producers have created work that predates the work that was allegedly stolen . . .If anything, BuzzFeed would have a claim that people are "stealing our ideas" since we have prior work that is clearly informing the work of independent producers and other media companies."

However, Peretti also notes that "we strive to credit generously when we are actually influenced by others," and that the company has taken steps to better document things like recipe sources, and will be "launching a public crediting system this summer to highlight our collaborative process of making videos and the specific contributions of individual contributors."