Like many online media outlets, Buzzfeed is moving toward the so-called “sponsored stories” advertising model – a blending of advertising and editorial content placed smack dab in the content stream.
Gawker, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and Forbes, among others include content created by advertisers or are experimenting with them. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference between paid and so-called real content other than the appearance of a label of whatever company is sponsoring it.
But 6-year-old Buzzfeed, whose motto is to capture the viral web in realtime, has started creating cool list articles, with titles such as “20 Grandpas Who Own the Internet” for its advertisers. That earned a glowing review from the Wall Street Journal, even though the content shows a thorough disregard for copyright and internet etiquette.
Buzzfeed told the Wall Street Journal it has a 15-person team that comb the internet to look for hip content to rebundle into lists – the company’s most popular content – and then slaps their advertiser’s name on it to give the company a veneer of cool. That team has routinely created sponsored stories for its clients by lifting images from the internet without permission or even the courtesy of a proper attribution.
Consider a sponsored story from Virgin Mobile last month, a picture gallery called: “30 Geeky Ways to Spruce Up Your Nerd Pad.”
Some of the pictures are lifted from blogs that lifted them from other blogs that lifted them from catalogs – a likely fair use even if the original source of the picture is not given attribution. But there’s more to it than that.
One photo was a New York Times picture of a Captain Kirk chair taken in 2009 by freelance photographer Susan Seubert of Portland, Oregon.
Wired contacted her to see if either she or the newspaper had granted permission. Neither did, she said. Subsequently, photo agency Redux Pictures of New York got Buzzfeed to cough up an undisclosed licensing fee.
When Wired asked the company about the practice, Jonah Peretti, the sites’ founder, said Buzzfeed is changing its ways and is addressing the problem.
“When they get caught, of course, the answer is going to be, ‘We’re trying to clean up our act,'” she said.
To be sure, much of the lower-tier blogosphere is filled with infringing pics. But what makes the Buzzfeed case so unusual is that it is a brand-name media outlet with big-time funding – $15.5 million was invested in January by New Enterprise Associates. It’s also hiring veteran journalists to cover beats ranging from politics to Hollywood, and has won plaudits for its internet savviness in an age where journalism is struggling to make money online.
Buzzfeed is moving toward the sponsored stories model as one of its primary economic engines, Peretti said.
“We’re going beyond banner ads,” he said, “to replace that with interesting social content people think is interesting to share and pass along to their friends.”
He admits that the site’s paid and non-paid content has been filled with infringing pictures.
Buzzfeed, he said, has image deals with several agencies, including The Associated Press, Reuters, Getty Images and celebrity shops. Sometimes, he said, the site has the rights to photos, but its staff lift them from blogs on the internet, where the picture was already pilfered, he said.
Tom Spina, a New York designer, said a picture of his $10,000 Star Wars desk with Han Solo encased in carbonite has been lifted from his website zillions of times. The picture appears in the same “Nerd Pad” paid post that Seubert’s photo was in.
“We’ve wound up in a lot of these kinds of lists,” he said. “We didn’t give them any kind of approval of it, but I would have.”
The attribution for Spina’s desk on the Virgin Mobile sponsored post says nerdapproved.com, a blog with no affiliation with Spina.
Another picture in the same nerd post is one of a Millennium Falcon bed, which apparently originated on Kyla Kromer’s Facebook page. She says pictures of her bed may be used by blogs and magazines. “All we ask for is to be credited, and given links or hard copies,” the Facebook page says.
Yet the picture is attributed to a static Flickr URL that doesn’t even indicate what Flickr account the photo was borrowed from. Oddly, enough it was the “official” Star Wars Flickr page.
Despite Peretti’s dismissal of the problem as a training issue, looking through the posts for Virgin Mobile, it seems more accurate to say that Buzzfeed didn’t make any concerted effort at all to track down the original owner when it comes to sponsored posts.
Another recent Virgin Mobile post is entitled “20 Instagrams to Get You Excited for Fall.” What follows are 20 photos, ostensibly taken by Instagram users. But if you liked any of them and wanted to follow the original photographer, you’d have no idea who took any of them.
The “attribution” for each photo is a link to the photo’s location on Amazon’s cloud storage network – which gives no clue to who took the photo. The photos are almost certainly not licensed under Creative Commons, because Instagram doesn’t offer that option.
The model seems intended to lend some of Buzzfeed’s coolness to partners like Virgin Mobile. For instance, this list story about Halloween includes LolCat-style captions over borrowed images, one of which is a Pedobear pumpkin referencing a meme about pedophilia that started on the notorious 4Chan image board. Another Halloween post includes photos of a pumpkin used as a bong, multiple fraternity-style beer/pumpkin mashups, and even a pumpkin that looks to be having oral sex with a gourd.
None of the images in those posts have any attribution to speak of – though at least one photo is watermarked with another site’s URL. That violates one of the internet’s key tenets, which is that if you are going to borrow or infringe from another creator, at least provide the courtesy of a link.
Peretti defends the borrowing, in some cases. Often, he said, the sponsored posts, which in Virgin’s case are produced jointly by Buzzfeed and Virgin, have a fair-use right to use the pictures.
“There’s many [photos] we think that there is a strong fair-use argument,” he said. “They have been remixed and shared on the web.”
Fair use, which is subject to judicial interpretation, is a defense to copyright infringement and may be invoked for purposes such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research. One of the other tests, however, is to what extent is the re-use for commercial purposes.
Buzzfeed, he said, “can’t participate in the conversation on the web,” unless it publishes photos that are hot on the internet, regardless of whether the original owner grants permission. And in many instances, he said, it’s virtually impossible to determine the real owner of a photo.
One case in point is a picture of a Nintendo bedspread on the same Virgin Mobile nerd post, which was attributed to bedzine.com as the source. But the picture appeared on so many blogs that we were not immediately able to determine its original owner.
Virgin Mobile declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, the carrier said it was bound by Buzzfeed’s “policies and guidelines.”
“When we publish content on the Buzzfeed platform, we automatically are subject to Buzzfeed’s policies and guidelines around content licensing. If you have questions about these policies, we encourage you to reach out to Buzzfeed directly with your questions,” the statement said.
The internet seems to be accepting Peretti’s model as Buzzfeed has been hit with only a few infringement suits.
One case against Buzzfeed was lodged last year by now-defunct copyright troll Righthaven concerning the site’s use of a Denver Post photo of a Transportation Security Administration search at a Colorado airport. The case was dismissed for procedural reasons, as were dozens of other Righthaven cases, because the courts concluded Righthaven did not own outright the content over which it was suing.
Earlier this month, Mavrix Photo hit Buzzfeed with a $1.3 million suit for allegedly running pics of Katy Perry and Kathy Griffin without permission. That case is pending. A patent infringement case (.pdf) filed earlier this year by Mobile Transformation was dismissed in October.
The site has a staff of about 150, up from a couple dozen the year before. According to the Wall Street Journal, traffic has doubled from a year ago, and some of its other advertisers include Toyota, General Electric, JetBlue and Pepsi.
The Obama for President campaign is also buying Sponsored Stories, though all of its content looks to be videos created by the campaign.
For Peretti, it’s not that big of a deal to print “web culture stuff” without authorization.
“It’s not like it’s threatening some photojournalist who’s in Afghanistan risking his life,” he said.