“Hi, can you help me exploit your content?”

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This morning, we published a post on Offbeat Bride featuring some amazing Disney centerpieces. My editors hope every post does well, but there are certain posts that due to a combination of factors, we suspect might do a little extra well. In the case of this post, pop culture references + gorgeous execution + excellent photography = possible viral win!

Today our hunches were right, because within a few hours I got this email from a writer at Buzzfeed:

buzzfeed email

My jaw may have physically dropped when I read this. Buzzfeed has exploited Offbeat Bride content without our permission dozens of times, most recently repackaging our post “I got left at the altar: turning heartbreak into artwork” (December 29, 2014) as “After Her Fiancé Left Her At The Altar, This Bride Took The World’s Best Photo Shoot” (December 30, 2014). Yes, they secured the photographer’s permission to use the photos, but in terms of attribution for breaking the story, while Offbeat Bride got a “h/t” (“hat tip”) mention at the end of the post. We got a few thousand clicks, while Buzzfeed got 10,062,786 views and identified the post as one of their top of the month.

Historically, Buzzfeed’s business model has been essentially repackaging the internet. (They’ve moved away from that recently, but repackaged content is still a large chunk of what they do.) That’s not this particular writer’s fault. This writer is just doing the best they can to crank out content hour after hour, day after day. I sympathize with doing your best in the digital content mines. So while I’m not going to be rude, I did need to stand my ground:

Hi, XXXXX. Honestly, I’m a bit shocked by the gall of your request here. As an independent publisher, I live and I die by my pageviews. I have had my content slurped up and repackaged by Buzzfeed for years, sometimes (but not always) with a tiny “h/t offbeatbride” or “source: offbeatbride” at the end of the post. I get a few thousand clicks while Buzzfeed racks up millions of views.

I understand that this is usually (…usually) done with the photographer’s permission, so it’s not technically shady… But it’s extremely frustrating, and no: I’m not going to help you do it.

I want to be clear here: Offbeat Bride doesn’t own the photos in any of our posts. Photos are submitted to us by photographers who grant us explicit permission to publish them, and the photographer always retains complete ownership of the images. That’s why other publishers (like Buzzfeed, or anyone else) can go straight to the photographer and secure permissions to republish photos we’ve featured.

It’s absolutely legal for Buzzfeed to do what they’re doing… I just consider it bad form. It’s not stealing, it’s just pretty blatant exploiting. Run an excerpt, sure! Publish a couple photos with the photographer’s permission and a link to our original post, rad! But get permission to republish all the photos, and then just give us a small nod at the end? Or worse, ask us to HELP YOU DO THIS?

No. Absolutely not.

Comments on “Hi, can you help me exploit your content?”

  1. BuzzFeed… “[..]a more wretched hive of scum and villainy[..]

    Honestly Ariel, you are right. It might not be illegal, but it sure is f*cking scandalous. The gall of that e-mailer. “Hi, plz help me rip your indie website off, ktnxbai.”

    P.s. that quote might be a bit dramatic, but I’ve always wanted to use it ^_-

  2. Hey, guys! Buzzfeed annoys the heck outta me, and I’ve turned them down both times they’ve reached out to me for content. It’s just not my cup of tea.

    But publications who want exclusivity pay their contributors for that privilege. According to the e-mail exchange I had with an Offbeat editor last year, not only does Offbeat does not pay its contributors for their content (photographic, written, or otherwise), but, in many cases, Offbeat requires industry vendors to be paying advertisers in the Offbeat Empire before accepting their content for publication.

    This is most definitely your prerogative, and you’re doing a great job of creating compelling content. I get that you’re trying to make a living, and maintaining a balanced approach to paid content, sponsored content, and in-house content is critical for Offbeat to thrive. I totally get that!

    But your contributors are allowing you to publish their content for free in order to gain further recognition in their industry – and, subsequently, more income. That is their sole motivation.

    If you want to protect your content from content aggregators like Buzzfeed, you need to consider incentivizing your own content contributors.

    • 100% agreed, Anne — which is why I’m always clear (in this post and elsewhere) that photographers retain full ownership of their content. (I didn’t pay for it, so I don’t own it!) While I pay my editors, web developer, community manager, and sales manager, my business isn’t in a place to pay contributors — so they always retain ownership of their materials.

      I absolutely don’t begrudge photographers or guest posters for sharing their material elsewhere (in fact, I celebrate it!), but I can still wish that other publishers would be better about attributing their sources. And perhaps not lifting their headlines almost word-for-word from us.

      I also want to address this:

      In many cases, Offbeat requires industry vendors to be paying advertisers in the Offbeat Empire before accepting their content for publication.

      This is not true. We publish a ton of Industry Insiders posts from non-advertisers, and the vast majority of our wedding porn posts are from non-advertisers (including the post in question that went up today). While it is true that we prominently link our sponsors when we feature their submissions, being a sponsor is NOT a factor in getting published on Offbeat Bride.

      Please review the email exchange you had with my editor last year — the issue is how we link non-sponsors, not whether or not we accept submissions from non-sponsors. If you have any questions or feedback about our policies, I’d love to chat via email!

    • I feel like this would be less of an “either or” situation and more of one that requires a better third option. Neatorama is a content aggregator that seems to do a great job of showing “Hey, look at this neat thing with found!” and adding, “…on THIS site, made by THIS guy.”

      Buzzfeed is like that guy in your group project that thinks he should be the one to present the project to the class, even though he’s been sitting in the corner and drawing on his desk the whole time.

      • Agreed. Neatorama has featured our content many times, and always done so in a way that feels really respectful.

      • Exactly this! If Buzzfeed asked the photographer permission to use 1 or 2 pics, then shuffled their readers off to see the whole story, that would be one thing. But to have us find, source, write, and produce a story that they just slurp up in its entirety, sucks ballz.

  3. All I can say is, at least they asked about permission. Having had my work ripped off online since day one, I’m happy when anyone asks, even if they’re shady mofos (bec. at least I can tell them no instead of trying to track them down & get my stuff removed, which almost never works).

    • Yeah, this is the first time in all these years that they’ve asked (and it’s worth noting that it’s only because they hit a glitch in going over our heads). I can only assume that my response ensures that they’ll never ask again and just take what they want next time. :/

  4. I know this isn’t even in the same ballpark, but a few years ago someone stole a photograph from me and turned it into a meme. At first I was amused, but then, as I saw the image go viral, I grew super irritated at what is most certainly theft. It’s one thing if I put it out there and it goes viral. It’s quite another if it’s stolen and goes viral.

    Anyway, I figured I would just ascribe to the idea of CTFD and wait it out. Soon, I figured, the popularity would die down. And it did. That is until some whippersnapper at Buzzfeed picked it up off of Pinterest or somewhere and ran it again… and again and again and again. Now, everytime someone at Buzzfeed wants to run a list of funny dog photos, they rerun it. My photo. Used without my permission. And there’s no stopping them. They’re not just thieves, they’re lazy, unoriginal thieves.

    Long story short. I feel your pain, Ariel, even if I have only experienced a little bit of your frustration. Stay strong.

    • In fact this is blatant copyright infringement (though not intentionally so you couldn’t pursue treble damages). The case could be made that BuzzFeed is profiting off your image, regardless of the intermediary step. This would likely be a pretty open-and-shut legal case to make and likely a copyright lawyer would take it on commission.

      Go stick it to the man.

      • Buzzfeed’s Terms of Service are written specifically to protect them against this kind of legal action. They wouldn’t do what they do if their butts weren’t very well protected from copyright lawsuits. (Also, as someone who’s dealt with copyright lawyers working on commission, I cannot advise anyone go that route, ever.)

        Again, I don’t think this is a legal issue… it’s simply an issue of manners.

        • So I just took a quick read through said Terms of Service and it seems that they cover their asses from anything arising from user-submitted content copyright violations. But it seems a whole different thing if it’s BuzzFeed staff doing the lifting. Agreed that if they lift the idea and properly license the photos its not a legal issue so much as an ethical one, but as soon as any content that is property/copyright of Offbeat Empire or anyone else (and not licensed to them) shows up there, they’re infringing.

          In no way does it make the idea of pursuing legal channels an easy one, but the material is there for such a case. Fair point about copyright lawyers, and also the fact that BuzzFeed probably spends more on legal retainers than they do on content development so it might seem like bringing a spoon to a gunfight.

          I’m not sure how they square their own terms of service with their content development. Do they consider their employees “user contributors” so they can get around having any responsibility for the origins of their content, thereby limiting liability?

          Have you thought about adding a section to your TOS that limits the portability of your content on aggregators like BuzzFeed but not on ones like Neatorama? Like anything posted on the same story, but later than yours, may not contain more than 25% of the images and/or text you post and must include a “See more on Offbeat Empire” link to the original? Not sure of the viability or how that might affect your business, but it would be nice to find a way to limit the exploitation and drive more traffic.

  5. When I saw that post this morning, my first thought was “freaking awesome!!!” but sadly my second thought was “how long until Buzzfeed slurps up THIS one too?” Rawr.

  6. Ariel, now that they have asked once, can you not compile a list of lifted posts in the case that some of them do actually infringe your copyright (for things like text, etc.)? It would be interesting to see a highlighted running list of posts that have been blatant rip-offs and ones where there in actual duplication (for example if you crop or edit a photo for publication and it shows up the same way). Then you could see if you can generate some exposure and then traction in getting them to leave you alone or be more ethical in their interactions.

    The challenge being that this takes work and shops like yours don’t have much spare bandwidth :-/

    • I appreciate the sentiment here, but the larger issue for me is that it just doesn’t seem like a good use of my energy or… well… spirit. I can focus on producing awesome stuff, or I can focus on tracking down people who do things I don’t like with that stuff. One focus feeds my soul and makes me feel awesome! One makes me feel crabby — even writing this post felt a little dirty and off-brand for the Empire.

      Ultimately, I’m a publisher who likes putting things out into the world. I’m just not into spending too much energy haggling over what people do with those things. This particular situation felt particularly galling… but tomorrow I’ll be back in the digital content mines myself, cranking out more awesome stuff. 🙂

      • Understood. I’m similar. It’s such a pain that so much of “large success in business” has less to do with the creative and interesting content you produce or the communities you cultivate, but rather is more dependent on your resources and ability to exploit the legal and regulatory structures of politics and finance.

  7. I’m a little intrigued by this response, because my base assumption would be that the Empire benefits from having posts picked up by Buzzfeed, which presumably has a much larger readership.
    It sounds like some people do come over to OBB who wouldn’t otherwise be here (and, sure, maybe most of those who see it view it on Buzzfeed only – but a few extra people is better than no extra people?). And if posts originating on OBB show up on Buzzfeed semi-regularly, people who would otherwise be unaware might start noticing and remembering the name ‘Offbeat Bride’ and associating it with interesting weddings. Those of us who follow OBB regularly aren’t going to stop just because one post in a hundred (or whatever the stats are) shows up on Buzzfeed.
    I assume it must benefit the relevant photographers too (else they wouldn’t agree to it), and in the long term it might make Offbeat Bride a more attractive place for contributors to submit interesting content, if there’s a chance of it being picked up and reaching a wider (if less interesting from a marketing perspective) audience.
    Perhaps it also benefits the community generally, if it makes a more mainstream audience aware of niche happenings (although this is not a business case argument).
    Sure, it’d be nicer if they put up one or two photos and then sent over the crowds (assuming OBB cope with that kind of traffic spike), and that would be best for you. However, to an outside observer (with limited knowledge of how these things work) what they’re doing seems to do you a small amount of good rather than doing you harm – so I assume I’m overlooking something given your response. What have I missed?

    • Great question! You’re right that a link from Buzzfeed does us good — but it does us only a very little good. Buzzfeed sent us 20k hits last year — that’s out of our 15,000,000 total hits in 2014. A tiny drop in the bucket.

      Meanwhile, they build enormous amounts of traffic (they got literally 10,000,000 views off the post that they published the day after ours!) from the content and community that we’ve work very hard to cultivate and create a safe space for.

      Sure, Buzzfeed lifting stories from us doesn’t directly damage us, but they benefit enormously from the years of work we’ve done, while we benefit very little… little enough that I’d be willing to sacrifice it in exchange for them not profiting from our hard work. I’d trade that meager 20k hits/year for them to stop lifting the content that we’re known for rocking.

  8. Nothing really productive to say here besides how much I love your response. I totally agree with the points you made. I had no idea that Buzzfeed had used so many of your stories. Probably because I find Buzzfeed incredibly annoying and I have blocked Buzzfeed posts from my Facebook feed. I’m glad that you’re following your moral compass. This is why I love the empire.

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