What is the law on meme stealing?
Is there such a thing as a meme stealing licence? Does the guy stealing your meme belong in jail? Are meme thieves liable for legal damages? Is stealing memes morally defensible?
You might be forgiven for thinking that memes are just insubstantial, non-existent gobbets of code that exist – if they exist at all – purely theoretically in the mind of the internet, wherever the hell that is.
You may as well try and copyright a daydream, the pattern of rings on a tree stump, or the sweet song of a nightingale, right?
Wrong. Stealing memes can come with some pretty hefty legal consequences. In fact, here’s a bunch of times meme stealing has got people just like you into seriously hot water.
Remember Grumpy Cat? She’s dead now. But before she died, she was a super successful meme, with commercial interests that most likely dwarf anything you’ve ever personally been involved in.
Well anyway, that was all with her permission. Kinda. And she made money. Or at least her owners did. The problem was when when a drinks company called Grenade used her dour moggy likeness to try and sell roasted coffee and t-shirts.
Interestingly, Grenade had bought the rights to sell iced coffee under her name. Not roasted. Bit nit-picky, but a jury found in favour of Tardar Sauce, and the case blew up in Grenade’s face.
PEPE THE FROG
Our lord and saviour Pepe earned a lot of questionable press during the 2016 election and all its associated unpleasantness. It’s easy to forget, among the sheer ubiquity of his adorable green face, that he actually had a real-life creator.
Matt Furie, who was initially tickled that his friendly froggy brainchild had reached such a vast audience, was bewildered and ultimately pretty horrified when Pepe became an icon for such undesirables as InfoWars, the hardcore insurrectionist MAGA crowd and assorted Klan stans in places like Missouri.
When a poster depicting Pepe in company with unpleasant pieces of work like Roger Stone, Kellyanne Conway, and former president Donald Trump was being sold for actual money by InfoWars, Furie had no choice but to sue. And he got his way.
Cartoon frogs and gloomy pets aside, meme culture can get a little bit nasty and personal sometimes.
Like the case of poor Adam Holland. Adam Holland was a young lad with Downs Syndrome. A picture of him, aged 17 holding up a drawing, went viral. Initially because it was seen as being adorable, and inspiring.
It wasn’t long before cruel people started using it to make distasteful jokes.
The absolute nadir of this unhappy pile-on happened when shock-jock radio show WHPT-FM ‘The Bone’, broadcast out of Tampa, Florida, used Adam’s image to headline the ‘R****ded news’ section of their website.
Adam’s family sued the station – and a website called signgenerator.org, which created and marketed a ‘R*****ed Handicap Generator’ using the image’.
The arrived at a settlement for $150k, and sent an important message.
Remember Tay-Tay’s global smash hit ‘Shake It Off’? Some jealous rival songwriters claimed she basically stole the chorus – ‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play / And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate’ – and tried to sue her for a truckload of money.
Meme aficionados (hi!) at the time were a bit like, eh, ‘haters gonna hate’ is an existing meme, so fair enough maybe? Be interesting to see how this one plays out.
Well anyway, flash forward to 2022 and a judge threw the case out of court. Why? The lyric was ‘too banal’ for the law to be bothered with.
So is there actually a meme-stealing license?
Turns out yes!
It’s called ‘having a shitload of money’.