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When big influencers steal content, small original creators lose out

“I see you’ve used my audio. That’s absolutely fine, but can you atleast give credits!”

An indignant Srishti Das (@thesrishtidas) messaged a TV actor with half a million followers on their blue-ticked Instagram account on June 9. Fans’ comments—Das has over 142,000 of them—had alerted Pune-based content creator to the fact that the actor had used Das’ voice in their Reel, without crediting her for it. Das’ shtick involves creating different characters with unique voices, and this audio was special to one of the popular roles she plays—a child from the 1990s.

She had reason to believe it wasn’t a mistake but a case of IP (intellectual property) theft. “When my followers started leaving comments on their Reel asking them to acknowledge my voice, they disabled comments on the post,” says Das, who began her journey as a content creator in 2018 and has posted more than 200 humorous videos in the past year. After she flagged the issue with Instagram for the second time in 30 days, the platform took the verified user’s video down on grounds of copyright violation. “Post this, the actor blocked me on Instagram,” says Das.

Content IP theft is a common internet phenomenon, but the influx of short-video-sharing platforms combined with the race to gain followers has led to a worrying trend in the creator space: Big, and often verified, accounts, with hundreds of thousands of followers are stealing popular content of creators who are usually from small towns and have a relatively smaller following. The practice is rampant in content segments like entertainment and finance. When they’re called out for copying or copyright infringement, they just brazenly block the violated party.

In the creative economy, where income—both current and future—is directly related to followers, likes, shares, views and goodwill, content theft impacts the power and career of an online influencer.

Aggregator accounts, especially in areas like personal finance, are regular perpetrators, often gaining more followers and goodwill than the creator they steal from. “Aggregators, or accounts that curate the best content on a subject, use my videos without permission to sell their financial courses on Instagram or on their Telegram group links where they give tips on stocks,” says financial creator Anushka Rathod (anushkarathod98) who has over 257,000 followers. This is a concern for Rathod, a former investment banking analyst who makes content on financial literacy, because only a SEBI-registered investment adviser can recommend which stocks to buy/sell.

Mint checked Rathod’s claims and found that the financial services aggregator has lifted several of her Reels in the past and has more than 300,000 followers. “Such accounts can make money from smaller companies for brand promotion by showing numbers built on the back of the content of people like me,” says Rathod, who lives in Surat and has made one Reel almost every day for the last 10 months.

Not all of these are large companies or startups, but for young investors looking for simple videos that break down complex subjects and provide step-by-step guidance, such videos are a draw.

Almost every Reel Neha Nagar (@iamnehanagar), a financial creator with over 620,000 followers, makes—and she’s done over 170 since July last year—is stolen and reposted without credit by multiple accounts. Nagar, who holds an MBA in finance, has worked as a wealth manager with IIFL Securities in the past and now runs her own tax advisory firm. On the off chance she gets a mention, it is buried deep, after the caption and hashtags, she says.

To ensure that the platform’s algorithm continues to recommend their posts to users, creators have to churn out videos on a daily basis. “What’s the point of us spending money and creating content across different formats 4-5 times a week when it is so easy to steal and post,” asks travel blogger Kamakshi Pal (@kamakshi.pal) with 41,100 followers on Instagram who has uploaded more than 1,000 posts on the platform since 2013.

By the time one spots the copyright violation, calls it out and approaches Instagram for action, the damage—in terms of the views and followers lost—is already done, explains Sharan Hegde (@financewithsharan), a financial creator from Mangaluru who uses pop culture references in his videos to simplify the basics of financial investing. Hegde, a management consultant with PwC, has gained more than 400,000 followers on Instagram since he started making Reels eight months ago.

Even when the platform’s features enable creators to get their due credit, violators find a way around it. They screen-record a video, then separate its audio file and upload it as their own. They superimpose their watermark when stealing an entire video.

The issue transcends platforms. When Niharika NM (@niharika_nm) gained popularity through her witty Reels on Instagram, some users started putting up her videos on YouTube Shorts. One such account bagged 100,000 subscribers through this route, said the Los Angeles-based Indian creator who has over 1.8 million followers on Instagram. “Thankfully, we were able to prove to YouTube that those channels were not owned by me and have them taken down.”

Vipasha Malhotra, a Delhi-based musician and standup comedian, says her audio clips are picked up by TikTok-ers outside India, something she has no control over. She realised this recently when she spotted her audio on a Canadian-Indian creator’s TikTok post repurposed for Reels. “The creator was very polite and immediately gave me credit as they had found the audio on TikTok and didn’t know it was my voice and creation,” says Malhotra who has close to 67,000 followers on Instagram for her music and comedy content. This was an anomaly. “Majority of creators don’t tag me when using my audio in their Reels,” she says.

Platforms like Instagram allow users to report instances of copyright infringement through a form available on its intellectual property help centre. That’s not nearly enough, say the creators Mint spoke to, who have repeatedly flagged copyright violations to the platform but haven’t received a response or resolution yet.

The interface of features like Reels also makes it harder for users to distinguish between what’s original and what’s plagiarised. You see neither the date when something was posted on Reels nor the comments (where someone may have pointed out plagiarism) unless you check, which takes you out of the smoothly scrolling video feed. The interface also makes you follow the content instead of the creator. Users unwittingly hit follow without paying too much attention to the username.

YouTube has relatively better guidelines to safeguard creator interests in this regard, including its Content ID system that gives rights holders an automated way to identify and block reuploads of a user’s content, say the creators.

If the content is stolen from another platform and uploaded on YouTube, though, the process isn’t as seamless, notes Prince Khanna, co-founder of influencer marketing firm Eleve Media. “In such a scenario, Instagram content creators have to personally connect [with someone from YouTube] to claim their stolen audio/video and photos.”

That said, the Google-owned video search engine is also a far older platform compared to the new short-video-sharing apps that are still figuring out the pros and pitfalls of their algorithm.

Short-video-sharing platforms should adopt a more responsible approach towards curbing piracy, says Priyanka Khimani, entertainment and IP lawyer. “They can do this by encouraging and facilitating the use of licensed works by their customers as opposed to adopting the “we are an intermediary” defence when it comes to issues of digital piracy on their platforms.”

Creators also need to get serious about protecting their copyright. “As soon as you find out about an instance of plagiarism, spread awareness among your followers, urge them also to bombard the violator with comments and messages,” says Malhotra from Delhi.

Several creators Mint spoke to were not even aware that most platforms provide tools and guidelines to report IP theft. “Most online creators are, unfortunately, not pro-active when it comes to reporting copyright infringement on platforms,” notes Khimani who works with many artistes and creators. “A person not investing in learning about, and protecting their copyright, shouldn’t complain,” says Khimani. Live Mint

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