The Viral-Video-Microcelebrity-Industrial Complex; or, Making Money Off the Bus Lady Video

On June 19, a YouTube user by the name of "CapitalTrigga" uploaded a video of a gang of middle school students harassing bus monitor Karen Klein. He sent links to local news stations, and school authorities, according to a Reddit thread he posted in soon after. Just a couple days later, thanks to popular posts on Reddit, the video was playing on every major TV network in America. Thousands of dollars in donations poured into an online fundraiser for Karen Klein, the video's beleagured star.

Now, CapitalTrigga wouldn't mind getting paid, too.

The viral video industry, to the extent that it exists, is a strange one. Capitalizing on the latest viral sensation can require odd negotiations and moral sidestepping that you don't see in traditional showbiz deals.

CapitalTrigga's story is an interesting model for the process, which has no "traditional" route yet. Initially, he didn't upload the video, "Making the Bus Monitor Cry," to make money. "I posted it on YouTube to raise awareness," he told WhatsTrending soon after the story broke.

He'd found the video on the Facebook page of the student who filmed it, Luis Recio Jr. He knows all the kids in the video in real life because he's a graduate of the school they attend, Athena Middle School. He goes to Athena High now, but has so far remained anonymous.

"I would really like to find someone to license my video," CapitalTrigga wrote in an email to Gawker last week, just as the fundraiser for Karen Klein on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo crossed the $600,000 mark. (It's now over $670,000.)

Where does a high school kid get the idea of licensing a video he found on Facebook? As the video was going viral, CapitalTrigga received an e-mail hinting at the possibility of cashing in on the phenomenon he launched.

The email began:

Dear CapitalTrigga,

I am Head of Research at Viral Spiral, the world's leading management company for YouTube videos—including "Charlie Bit My Finger," the most viewed viral video of all time.

I have recently seen your "Making The Bus Monitor Cry" video and we would be very interested in representing you, as we feel your Channel has real commercial potential.

This weird proposition might seem like a scam at first glance, but Viral Spiral is legit. Started by a Brit named Damian Collier last year, Viral Spiral represents a portfolio of viral video clients, from the father and son who shot "Jesus Christ In Richmond Park"—Fenton! Fenton!—to the people behind the sneezing baby panda video. Viral Spiral attempts to monetize their clients' videos like a traditional agent might try to sell a screenwriter's Hollywood film project. The company employs a full-time researcher to scour the internet for the next lucrative viral hit, and they thought the bus monitor video might be it.

The commercial potential of CapitalTrigga's harrowing video, the email explained, was in licensing fees, which Viral Spiral could help negotiate.

"Given the popularity of your content, you have probably been getting (or very likely soon will be) messages from many different people and organizations, all wanting to use or license it," read the email. "In general, they should be paying you License fees and signing proper agreements."

These fees, the e-mail said, could range "from US $1,000 to US $150,000." Viral Spiral has helped the British family that made the "Charlie Bit My Finger" video earn more than $150,000 in licensing deals, including an iPhone app, according to the New York Times. Maybe an Angry Schoolchildren app could be next?

There was a problem, though: Viral Spiral apparently thought that CapitalTrigga had shot the bus monitor video—a mistake repeated by so many people that CapitalTrigga would eventually add a disclaimer in the caption to explain he had nothing to do with the video.

"At first they said everything was good and I just needed to sign the contract," CapitalTrigga said. Then they found out he didn't shoot the video, and so didn't own the copyright. "Now they're telling me that I need to get the recorder's permission."

It's a bit shady that ViralSpiral seemed so eager to help make money for someone they thought had filmed his buddies brutally harassing an old lady, then uploaded the video to YouTube. Last week we emailed Damian Collier, founder of Viral Spiral, to check on the status of the representation offer. "Because of concerns which have arisen over the copyright ownership of the video," he replied, "we have decided not to represent this one."

No ethical concerns? We asked if it really was only copyright keeping them from representing the video. Collier wrote back:

All of our videos go through a due diligence process, and we hadn't reached that stage with this one. It was still at the copyright verification stage, but has not proceeded, as I mentioned.

If you look through our catalogue, you'll see that we represent nothing which could be deemed exploitative or unethical, and we have regularly had to turn down videos, for that reason.

Maybe CapitalTrigga never had a shot at representation, but as of last week, he still had hope that Viral Spiral might help him make some money. He was planning on contacting the kid who recorded the video to get him to renounce his copyright.

"I just need him to say that he will never put the video on the internet again and he wants nothing to do with it, which I think he will say," CapitalTrigga wrote in an email. "He probably wants all the attention away from him." (Luis Recio Jr., who's already apologized, might agree.)

The mainstream obsession with viral videos has created a micro-celebrity-industrial-complex that's increasingly coming to represent the regular celebrity-industrial-complex. Karen Klein's windfall from being bullied is just the latest example of the money to be made in viral fame. I suspect that someday soon the bully who records the video will be able to cash in, too.

Image by Jim Cooke. Photo: AP.