From Inspiration to Imitation: The Copyright Drama Unfolding

The Delhi High Court has issued a summons to a digital platform called ‘People of India (POI)’ following a copyright infringement lawsuit brought forth by ‘Humans of Bombay (HOB)’. POI shares narratives about ordinary individuals in a manner highly reminiscent of HOB. The case, titled Humans of Bombay Stories Pvt. Ltd. v. POI Social Media Pvt. Ltd. & Anr., has taken an intriguing turn beyond the boundaries of the court, with Brandon, the founder of Humans of New York (HONY), weighing in on the matter via X (formerly Twitter): “You can’t be suing people for what I’ve forgiven you for.” In a swift response, HOB clarified that their case encompasses not only storytelling but also concerns related to intellectual property rights infringement. This battle in both legal and virtual domains has not only captured the attention of the digital media industry but also the internet at large. It has spurred a widespread discussion on issues of substantial imitation, passing off, and format rights, prompting a thorough analysis of the strength of HOB’s lawsuit.

The ongoing lawsuit, initiated by HOB, revolves around a request for an injunction to prevent the infringement of their copyrighted material. HOB asserts that POI has emulated its distinctive style and format of storytelling. Specifically, the plaintiff contends that POI replicated HOB’s storytelling approach, which focuses on human interest narratives complemented by photographs of regular individuals. The Delhi High Court has prima facie determined a notable degree of imitation, with instances of photographs or images being either identical or closely resembling. As a result, the court has issued a notice to POI.

The Issue at Hand

HOB’s allegation against POI centers on content plagiarism, raising the possibility that it could alternatively be construed as a source of inspiration. The High Court’s order states HOB is aggrieved by the identical portal/service of POI, disseminating identical content on its platform.  Further, while highlighting a list of comparable posts on the platforms of both parties, HOB’s counsel mentioned the replication of HOB’s business model by POI, and in terms of that, the similarity between the two cannot be ignored. This distinction is the core argument underpinning the HOB/POI dispute. Moreover, the court is expected to scrutinize the notions of “substantial imitation” and “format rights” in the course of its analysis.

However, despite the remarkable similarity between the business model and the fact that POI has approached the same subjects and discussed the same topics as HOB, the main issue in the present lawsuit revolves around whether HOB can actually claim exclusivity over such aspects.

Similarities and Distinction

The concept of Idea-Expression Dichotomy, or Idea-Expression Distinction, is one of the foundational doctrines of copyright law, which states that there is no copyright protection in ideas, concepts, procedures, concepts or principles, but rather the expression of these. While the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 (Act) does not have a specific mention of this concept, it is highly recognised by the courts and was properly laid down in the case of R.G. Anand v. M/S Deluxe Films & Ors[1]. The judgment extensively discerns the circumstances where a subsequent work born out of an idea covered in a previous work would not be considered as violative. It is recognised that where a concept or idea is commonly used as inspiration by two works, there are bound to be certain similarities and parallels. Copyright violation is not a concern in situations where the same concept is used by competing works but treated and showcased in absolutely different ways.

It is also a widely accepted and recognised stance that in order for subsequent work to be violative of a preceding work, there must be substantial similarities between the two, where significant aspects of the expression in the preceding work are copied. This test is commonly referred to as the Substantial Similarity Test. Where the subsequent work appears to be a literal imitation of the previous work, with only minor alterations, copyright violation is unmistakable. The substantial similarity test generally employs the opinion of an average viewer or spectator, and whether in their opinion or point of view, significant similarities can be concluded.

Therefore, going by the Idea-Expression Distinction and the Substantial Similarity Test, in the case of works originating from the same concept/idea, it has to be observed if, other than the similarities appearing in the two works, there are also notable differences and any coincidental similarities are merely due to the inherent concept. In such cases, any intentions of copying from the original work are effectively ruled out.

A Closer Look

Coming to the case at hand, it is noted that the overall idea of each platform, HOB and POI, is centered on sharing stories of ordinary Indians and their extraordinary achievements, bringing out the heroes in the people of India. And in the quest to do that, these platforms reach out to individuals or allow these individuals to reach out to them. Hence, when analyzing the social media accounts of both these platforms, one stumbles upon certain similar posts focusing upon the same individuals, as one can see on the comparative table provided by Plaintiff. While the screenshots on the table suggest a substantial imitation by POI of HOB’s posts (as observed by Hon’ble Justice Pratibha M Singh), on a closer examination by actually looking at each individual post, one can observe certain differences as well. Examples can be observed in the posts featuring an account named “@caughtcrafthanded”, featuring the story of a 77-year-old woman and her start-up providing stitched goods. The screenshot, as seen in the order, creates a potential impression that POI has copied HOB’s post. However, even with the same concept and idea inherent in both the posts, we can see the difference in expression between the two. HOB’s post can be accessed here, and POI’s can be accessed here.

Even further differences can be observed in the story featuring “@rashmijathan82” and her journey as a dancer. In the competing posts, HOB’s posts centre on the idea of her walking out of an abusive marriage and finding a supportive partner while pursuing her dream of being a dancer and teaching the same after quitting a desk job. On the other hand, POI’s post focuses on how she overcame her fears and the harsh judgement of society to pursue her dreams. Hence, not only is the expression carried out differently but even the idea in the two posts is absolutely different. Both can be accessed here and here.

Basis the above, the claims made in the plaint, regarding replication and infringement fall under serious scrutiny.


The lawsuit spurred an interesting debate on the question of copyright protection in storytelling and business models, as claimed by HOB. While we eagerly wait for the events in this suit to unfold and the final observations of the court, it is a known fact that novelty is not a prerequisite to copyright protection, and creativity, such as storytelling, is a collaborative effort. The copyright law accepts that inspiration is an important element of creative output, and all artists, writers and creatives incorporate not only the ideas of their predecessors but also certain parts of their work. Further, if the central tenet of copyright law, and intellectual property law in general, is to be accepted, then we must realise that there needs to be a liberal interpretation of the rules concerning transformative use to allow all upcoming creators to engage in further procreation of innovation and creativity via the use of already existing and protected works.

[1] 1978 AIR 1613

About Sonal Sinha 15 Articles
I am currently in the fourth year of BA LLB at Symbiosis Law School Noida. Over the years at law school, I have developed a keen interest and passion for IPR laws and like to research upon and write blogs on topics related to Trademarks and Copyrights law. I hope to bring some intriguing content your way through my articles at this platform. Apart from that, I am also an avid reader and a fitness enthusiast

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