Takedown Notices to Viral Marketing: Cheezburger Network’s Ben Huh on the Evolution of the Media Business

by Sarah Lai Stirland on March 6, 2014

ben-huh-john-keatleyAt 36, Seattle-based Ben Huh is an entrepreneur who has pioneered one successful version of the modern publishing business model with his company the Cheezburger Network.

Huh’s startup is the home to user-generated humor sites such as the Fail Blog, I Can Has Cheezburger, Memebase, and Know Your Meme. He is the company’s CEO, and his wife Emily, 34, is the director of business development. Each month, more than 20 million people around the world visit Cheezeburger sites, generating more than 200 million page views. The company has attracted $37.5 million in venture financing, and in the past few weeks just launched a network of Spanish user-generated humor sites. The original company was founded in 2007. In addition to the Web sites, the company has published three books. It has also shot its own reality TV show called “LOLwork” on the cable channel Bravo.

Besides the realization that cats and other animals are popular on the Internet, the foundational insight driving Cheezburger’s success is Huh’s realization that people love to caption photos and otherwise interact with content to create something new – and in their eyes – original. He calls it peer-to-peer humor. Another insight is that as more of the population around the world spends their time on social media, and less on big media sites, advertisers are looking to maintain their contact with these fragmented audiences. Cheezburger’s sites are one way to do this. The company’s role, he says, is to build a “playground” for the audience, with tools to create the entertaining memes that foster those many “subcultures” that now make up that larger fragmented audience.

The success of these insights has led to the company’s expansion to 50 employees (although the company has laid off employees to adjust to a world that accesses the Internet more frequently through mobile phones,) and knocks on the door from big consumer brands asking how they can become more involved in order to generate more awareness of their products among Cheezburger’s hyper-engaged audience.

The members of Congress supporting the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act in 2012 discovered for themselves how hyper-engaged Cheezburger and other user-propelled sites’ users are when they received millions of phone calls and Tweets protesting the proposed legislation after some of the sites went black January 18th in opposition to the legislation.

So it seemed worthwhile to the Disruptive Competition Project to check in with Huh. He recently shared his thoughts on the current status of copyright law, and how it’s affecting both his business and the evolution of Internet and pop culture.

Q: Where do all the cat pictures come from?

A: They’re user-generated content. They’re from people captioning cat photos using our tools. Our editors receive the photos from the Internet. The team curates the front page. I equate their job to air traffic control. Their job is to figure out what to post and when.

There is a social component, there is a voting component, but at the end of the day, the person who makes the decision to post on the site is an employee of the company.

Q: You’ve said in the past that people don’t create for the money, but for the process. To some people that’s a controversial proposition. Tell that to the advertising agencies, for example, or anyone else who makes money off of content.

In that Toyota Yaris reader mashup competition example, participants were rewarded with $500 worth of burritos. You’ve said: ‘If you give people the right tools, and it’s fun, people will actually create stuff, and they don’t necessarily do it for the money.’ 

Does that mean that the advertising/content business is dead?

A: I’ll flip it around. In a world where there is so much user-generated content, why is a publisher necessary? People have been worried about that since the advent of Web 2.0. What we’ve seen happen is that economies are not zero-sum games. What happens is that when something explodes, curation, mediation, moderation, management, all of the things that we thought that the Internet would get rid of, are still required.

In fact, it’s required in a pretty significant way. It’s happened time and time again. When we think that an industry is going to be disrupted, it’s turned out the other way around and ended up thriving, perhaps with new entrants and new product and new brands. It’s really an opportunity for agencies to re-think their roles in the content and marketing process.

You’ve seen that now with branded content. The publishers started approaching brands directly and saying ‘Hey, we can actually create this content for you,’ and the agencies were left out of that game, especially with native content.

Now agencies are stepping in, and saying look, do you want to work with 50 publishers, let us manage your branded campaign, because your industry has grown.

We too are wondering: Who do we build a relationship with a brand, or agencies? And it turns out that the vast number of relationships have been with the agencies, and in fact it’s been where agencies have taken us to the brand and said: We’d like you to work with the agencies, and here’s why.

Q: I assume that you’ve never run afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because you have content editors picking images – you’re not going to get a Disney character mashed up, for example?

A: That’s actually happened on our site, not from an advertising perspective, but from a content perspective. Fair use is a grey area, but there are some particularly strong arguments to be made about fair use, that somebody remixing a character will not be dissuaded from purchasing a DVD or watching a movie. In fact it’s usually the opposite.

I remember, I got a call from a lawyer from a very large media company, and it was very clear that this lawyer had been tasked with taking down certain images from movies that were appearing on our Web site. We get these all the time, and we have a standard process of dealing with it. But after the fifth one, I called them and said, ‘Hey, so I see that these takedown notices are coming from you. Do you want to work together, because clearly, we have fans of your content, and you’ll benefit from additional exposure, as opposed to having all this taken down. This was in 2008, this was when we first started, this was when people didn’t really know how to deal with user-generated content. And he said: Hey, I’m just a junior guy here, I really don’t have the authority to do any of this.’

Fast-forward five years to 2012. We get a call from the same media company, and they’re asking us: ‘How do we get more of our movie screen shots onto your site?

So in half a decade, they did a 180. And they realized that working with publishers to use some small piece of content helps them to reach more people in the long run than to issue takedown notices.

Wholesale copyright infringement is a different issue, but we don’t have to deal with that.

Q: You’ve spoken a lot, and eloquently about how you view modern communication and culture, that is, much of creativity and communication now consists of taking an existing image we’re all familiar with, remixing or commenting on it, and sharing that creation with the world. What role do you think copyright has in this world? Do we need to change it, or is it working?

A: Right now, copyright is not a tool that is useful for the average citizen. Copyright is a tool that is used by those who have the means to prosecute people who did not actually cause the economic damage.

Let me give you a case in point. I forget the name of the woman, but she was accused of downloading 12 songs during the first generation of file-sharing networks, such as Napster. And she was fined, I think, almost $600,000, and I don’t think that there is a single person who believes that she did $600,000 in damages in that case. And what it’s become, the prosecution of this woman was for show.

It’s like saying: You know we have a lot of people going out there committing violent crime, so why don’t we just take one of these guys and execute them?

The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and public opinion has shown over an over again that a reasonable punishment for illegally downloading copyrighted content is roughly a $100 fine.

And so you have a law from a government that represents people that does not seem to reflect the desires and the intent of the people that it purports to serve.

Q: You’ve talked about how Internet culture will become pop culture. But kids still wear Spiderman and Batman backpacks to school. When do you think we’ll start seeing Cheezburger mash-up merchandise in department stores?

A: [Laughs] That’s fun for me to imagine. We’ve actually already done that. We’ve licensed images from our users, and created greeting cards with remixes with captions on them to a greeting card company called Madison Park Greetings. And we won greeting card of the year from greeting card manufacturers.

But I feel like our role here isn’t to be the main character. Our role here is to enable people to build characters, and to share them with others. Our role is to be enablers in this case.

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