BuzzFeed will steal your video and chop it into tiny little GIFs

The battle over digital content is being waged around a few essential questions – Who made it? Who owns it? Who can use it? – and looming over it all is the dispiriting question of whether any of it matters.

It does!

So here’s what happened. Lifehacker made a video about bad breath and how to avoid it.

Here’s that video.

Then BuzzFeed took that video and disemboweled it, chopping up the video into 12 individual .gifs that explain the content entirely and give away the video’s key visual gags.


Observers took exception to this, and rightly so.

This is not the first time BuzzFeed has been caught stealing content.

Our own Joe Veix has documented multiple cases of BuzzFeed lifting his work. In one case even the title of BuzzFeed’s parroted piece about the “weird poetry” of predictive texting was shockingly similar to the original. The title was later quietly changed, but the glaring similarities can still be seen in the URL of the BuzzFeed knock-off.

But let’s look at this particular case. Most video content these days is meant to be embedded – that’s how it spreads and gains notoriety. But chopping up a video, extracting all the best bits into .gif form, and making a list out of the video’s content before dumping the original video itself somewhere at the bottom of the post, almost as an afterthought, is something entirely different.

1) It leaves people with no reason to watch the video.

2) It’s not “transformative.” This is a key term in the Age of Aggregation. Essentially it means that if you’re going to use (and not just share) someone’s content, you have to change it significantly — not just re-hash it.

The grasping hands at BuzzFeed would probably tell you that it is transformative because of the technical change (video to .gif). Not so.

According to Stanford University:

When taking portions of copyrighted work, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has the material you have taken from the original work been transformed by adding new expression or meaning?
  • Was value added to the original by creating new information, new aesthetics, new insights, and understandings?

Nope and nope.

Nor is it fair use. Consider this overview of fair use provided by Stanford:

The four factors judges consider are:

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market

Any judge worth his robe detergent would conclude that the “amount and substantiality of the portion taken” in this case was grossly excessive since the entire video was explained in .gifs.

Then there’s the “effect of the use upon the potential market” – here’s where BuzzFeed is really cutting the legs out from under Lifehacker. Yes they’re sharing the video, but only at the bottom of the post and only after they’ve exposed their audience to all of the video’s major content, leaving people with no reason to view the original work. That’s Lifehacker’s “potential market” for the video – gone.

Stanford again:

“Another important fair use factor is whether your use deprives the copyright owner of income or undermines a new or potential market for the copyrighted work.”

And as the legal wonks go on to say:

“…your copying will not be a fair use if the portion taken is the “heart” of the work. In other words, you are more likely to run into problems if you take the most memorable aspect of a work.”

We’d be remiss if we discussed this without using the “p”-word – plagiarism.

After all, in the now-infamous case of Benny Johnson, BuzzFeed apologized after concluding that their employee had “lifted phrases and sentences from other websites” and fired Johnson. If copying “phrases and sentences” is plagiarism why isn’t copying images and videos?

This type of thing is nothing new for BuzzFeed but, in a way, that makes it even more surprising. Conscious of its image as a high-volume fluff machine BuzzFeed has recently made a concerted push towards legitimacy – expanding rapidly and hiring serious, big-name reporters. (They’ve been aided in those efforts by a recent $50-million-dollar investment.) But if BuzzFeed wants to be taken seriously it begs the question: why continue to engage in this type of obvious content theft?

Of course this is both a copyright issue and also a dollar and cents issue. Because naturally BuzzFeed is making money here. This particular post was sponsored by McDonald’s.

buzzfeed pic

Which means that all that sweet-sweet trending action that BuzzFeed is generating off of the ground beef of Lifehacker’s original content is making them some serious Ronald McDollars.

Publishing all the best parts of a video as .gifs — which, let’s be clear, are essentially just shorter videos — is about as close as BuzzFeed could come to just straight up ripping Lifehacker’s video and uploading it to their own YouTube channel — which is probably what’s on the horizon.

Because content wants to be free. And other people want to make money off it.

(Ed. note: I reached out to BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith for comment and will update this post accordingly.)

UPDATE (6/25):  As pointed out by Twitter user @RonnieD312BuzzFeed has since moved Lifehacker’s video to the top of their post. Note also that the post has been edited down significantly and now contains only 4 animated GIFS, whereas it originally included 12, depicting each part of the video, as stated above.

It’s worth pointing out that there’s no editorial note or update on the post indicating the reason for the changes or that any alterations were made to the post at all. We’ve reached out to BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith to ask whether these changes were in response to yesterday’s criticism and will update this post accordingly.

UPDATE (6/26):  After a raft of criticism, which included this post and social media comments from individuals at GawkerBuzzFeed contacted Lifehacker about the post. (Lifehacker confirmed this in a separate email.) According to BuzzFeed Motion Pictures spokesperson Catherine Bartosevich, when contacted by email, “The folks over at Lifehacker were uncomfortable with our original post, so we were happy to adjust it.” Bartosevich did not respond to further questions and would only say that BuzzFeed had reached out to Lifehacker. That conversation apparently included requests to remove the majority of the GIFs and move Lifehacker’s original video to the top of the post. BuzzFeed initially made no mention of these significant changes to the post; however, an editorial note appeared several hours later, incidentally only after we emailed them asking about its omission.

Screenshot via BuzzFeed:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 5.56.10 PM