Is Stealing Memes Illegal?

WHAT IS THE LEGAL status of your dank meme stash? Are stolen memes a legitimate issue for the courts? Has anybody ever gone to jail for stealing memes – and if not, why not, dammit?

In the grand scheme of things, stealing memes seems like a fairly innocuous crime. It’s just a dumb picture with words on, right? Well, kinda. In the eyes of US law, memes are more properly considered intellectual property, just like books, movies or music. 

At some point, somebody had to create it, right? That act of creativity took work. Inspiration, craftsmanship. A measure of effort to bring the idea to glorious fruition. So it surely follows that, if someone sneakily reposts a meme without crediting the originator, they’re stealing another person’s work. 

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Meme Law

The relevant body of law, in the US at least, is the Copyright Act of 1976. As you can probably imagine, legal scholars half a century ago weren’t exactly preoccupied with your ultra-rare diamond Pepe, or your desktop folder of Wojak templates.

Back in those days, if you wanted to (say) record somebody else’s song off the radio and distribute it, you had to put in quite a lot of effort. You needed a dedicated recording device, a bunch of blank tapes, and the willingness to physically circulate the resulting contraband. 

Nowadays, of course, you can distribute your ill-gotten meme to an audience of millions with a couple of taps on a screen. While sat on the toilet. What a time to be alive!

Meme Licencing

But hold up a second. Chances are the meme you’ve stolen has already been stolen. Did the person who made the meme take the original photograph? Very unlikely.

So if somebody brazenly accuses you of being a meme thief, just ask them if they actually drew the original bearded Chad image, or invented Big Chungus. No?

Thought not. 

Fair Use

Another crucial legal concept, relevant to meme thievery, is the idea of ‘Fair Use’ – a legal device outlined in the US Constitution. Those ever-insightful founding fathers made a point of ensuring American law should “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”. 

Because society, they reasoned, wouldn’t progress very far without creatives and engineers being allowed to borrow ideas off each other, at least a little bit. 

So if somebody was to get all pissy and sue you for stealing a meme, and the meme was actually (pretty much) their original work, the most pertinent question a judge might want to ask is: did you make money from this?

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Success Kid

Remember Success Kid? The baby making a fist of triumph? Republican politician Steve King tried to use the image in a fundraising campaign. Laney Griner – Success Kid’s IRL mom, who took the photo – threatened King’s campaign with legal repercussions. He promptly stopped using the image. 

Mrs. Griner was only able to take this course, because she’d previously licensed the image for use – on a Super Bowl advert for Coca Cola

Most memes, however, are made to be shared. That’s the whole point of them! The assumption is, if you put a meme out into the world, you should expect people to run with it. So relax. Nobody’s going to jail.

It’s not like memes were ever made to be bought and sold, after all.

Oh yeah, NFTs.

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Hey! Ever wondered about THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MEMES?


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