Meme stealing may sound like harmless behavior, but recently cases have been filed. Check out these 7 and learn the laws behind creating memes here.
Memes are nothing new. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins noted the primitive nature of the rapid spread of ideas, or memes, in a people group.
Primitive is the perfect word to describe memes.
While they’re mostly meant in good fun, memes play loose with intellectual property. There’s a fine line before laughter becomes litigious, and meme-based lawsuits are on the rise.
Catch up on the ins and outs of meme stealing.
1. Grumpy Cat
Tardar Sauce is a grumpy faced internet sensation. Better known as Grumpy Cat, she’s the veritable online offspring of Oscar the Grouch. She struggles with mornings, hunger, and her disdain for affection.
Grumpy Cat’s fame has gotten her public appearances, complete with a rider for bottles of water and a comfy seat. It’s also earned her a lawsuit.
Grumpy Cat Limited received $710,001 in damages after filing suit against a beverage company called Grenade, which used Grumpy Cat’s image to sell unlicensed merchandise. While Grenade did have the rights to produce a line of “Grumpy Cat Grumppuccino” iced coffees, they also made her the mascot of a roasted coffee line and sold t-shirts.
When presented with the argument, the jury found in favor of the meme.
2. Pepe the Frog
Pepe the Frog is a somewhat lascivious looking anthropomorphic frog who spends a lot of time lamenting “that moment when…” People tend to dress him up and photoshop hats on him in the course of their meme making. Why not?
It’s all in good fun until it turns political.
The alt-right designated the frog as their internet figurehead, using him to promote the Trump campaign and dressing him in Klan robes and military helmets. A painter in Missouri began selling paintings depicting Pepe holding a rifle in front of the White House.
InfoWars, a radio show turned robust internet juggernaut, used Pepe the Frog on a MAGA poster available for sale on their website. The poster finds Pepe in company with Roger Stone, Kellyanne Conway, and, of course, Donald Trump.
This has all led to a plea to #SavePepe and several lawsuits. Matt Furie, the frog’s creator, after issuing a takedown notice, has sued the painter and InfoWars. He’d like to see Pepe return to his amicable roots and enjoy his golden years in peace like his cousins Senor Frog and Michigan J.
3. Ziggi’s Mullet
Ali Ziggi Mosslmani was just a kid having fun at a party until the internet started doing math equations on his half shaved head. The rest of his head featured a bold cascade of shaggy locks, a mullet.
The Internet loves a mullet. It loves to make fun of a mullet at least.
Ziggi’s mullet has been used to work out the Pythagorean theorem, it has been photoshopped as a skunk, and it has been turned into a Pin the Tail on the Donkey game. Even the Daily Mail Australia and KIIS radio got in on the teasing.
Mosslmani has sued them for defamation.
4. Attractive Convict
Mugshots aren’t renowned for their flattery of the subject, but Meagan Simmons managed to take a good one. Her steady gaze and telltale orange jumpsuit took the Internet by storm. It got people asking for her cell number and wondering if looks could kill.
Though no one wants to be reminded of the night they got a DUI, there’s not much Simmons could do until the website InstantCheckmate.com used her mugshot in an ad promotion, thus monetizing the meme. She filed suit against them for exploitation.
5. Adam Holland
Because nothing seems off limits when you’re online, memes can quickly become cruel. Such is the case with Adam Holland.
Adam has Down syndrome. A picture of him at 17 proudly holding up a drawing went viral. Meme creators replaced his artwork with drawings and phrases of their own, some of them derogatory and libelous.
Tampa’s WHPT-FM, the Bone, used the picture for the header of their dumb news section. They changed his drawing to read “Retarded News.”
Holland’s parents sued the radio station and the website signgenerator.org, which devised a “Retarded Handicap Generator” using the image. They reached a settlement for $150,000.
Defamation suits are not the only legal action inspired by memes. Copyright infringement is also having its day in court. Rapper and actor Ludacris was sued when he posted a meme belonging to LittleThings, Inc.
The image in question is an illustration of a busty woman applying what appears to be antiperspirant under her breasts. The depiction of the full-figured woman’s plight in hot weather, sweat beneath her bosoms, is a playful nod to summer.
LittleThings was less amused by Ludacris’ “ill-gotten gains,” profiting off of their intellectual content.
7. Self-Proclaimed “Meme Master” Sued for Meme Stealing
Elliot Tebele is the man behind the social media presence known as “F–k Jerry.” He’s got an all-caps quip for any of life’s situations.
He’s speared salads and luggage restrictions. His best work is topical everyday observations: sleeping in when your partner gets ready, trolling your husband’s ex-girlfriends, even people speeding past you and getting stuck at the next light.
But is his best work his own?
Tebele is being sued by the father of a 16-year old who claims the “F–k Jerry” curator stole his son’s Instagram account. After a promotion with the account ended, Tebele is being accused of taking over the meme-centric profile, which now has over 3 million followers.
Honorable Mention: No Copyright Infringement Intended
Taylor Swift has a history of taking legal action against perceived threats to her bottom line. She shut down Etsy shops selling merchandise made by her own fans. And she tends to trademark lyrics from her songs that are otherwise common phrases.
She can’t seem to shake it off.
Noting her tendency to litigate, people have taken to posting lengthy disclaimers after mentioning the singer or her lyrics on social media. Covering your bases never goes out of style.
Has Someone Been Meme to You?
Bad puns may not be illegal, but the jury’s still out on meme stealing. If you’ve found yourself in the middle of a fair use text war or if someone stole your meme, let us help you.
We specialize in Internet law, and we know how to provide the protection you need.