Do Memes Violate Copyright?

erikaspslA meme is a certain idea or behaviour, which spreads among people – such actions online are called viral. Among the most famous memes are the Gangnam Style single or the LOLcats picture series, which gained worldwide popularity and became part of the popular culture, also known as Internet memes.

The revolution of information technologies triggered enormous popularity of memes. In the digital era, they have become a usual form of circulation of ideas, expression of emotions or even strong criticism. Thanks to social media, memes are spreading extremely fast, manifesting in various forms, including hyperlinks, hashtags, pictures, videos, websites, etc.

Memes are usually created from an existing photograph, picture or illustration by adding a statement that is accurate, relevant to the society, triggering a discussion or even shocking. Under the existing copyright regulation a photograph, a picture or an illustration is an object protected by copyright, therefore, the use of such objects for meme creation requires permission from the holder of the copyright. Without such permission the holder of the copyright may demand a compensation for unlawful use of his work.Img93480_kkedit

Once a meme is created, it is published online, usually on social media so that people who like the meme could share it with their friends and acquaintances. A meme found online can be further shared on the Internet, such as on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook feeds without the risk of copyright violation, if this is not done for commercial purposes, with the exception of cases when it is known in advance that the meme had been published unlawfully. If a meme is shared in order to seek commercial advantage the author’s permission is a must. Given the advertisement value of memes, they are increasingly often used by businessmen. For instance, Norwegian Airlines published an ad for cheap tickets from London to Los Angeles featuring a phrase about the divorce of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

An object protected by copyright can be used without the author’s permission for creating a meme in cases when it is used for parody. It is extremely relevant for memes, as they are often used to ridicule, picture a certain situation or public phenomenon with irony or satire. However, every member-state of the European Union is free to decide whether it will subject parody to copyright restrictions or not. In Lithuania, a creation cannot be used for parody without the author’s permission, while it is allowed in other countries, such as France or Germany.

In cases requiring the author’s permission it is obvious that tracking down an author of a photograph publicly available online and suitable for a meme may be too difficult. However, meme authors can use photographs from online bases of illustrations, such as Shutterstock, Getty Images or Flickr after paying a certain fee. It is always important to make sure and buy the necessary license that will allow transforming the purchased photograph, image or illustration for meme creation, and later publishing it online.

Authors whose photograph, images or illustrations have been unlawfully used for a meme can easily defend their right, as memes are usually published on social media, which are fast to respond and remove the violations on request in accordance to internal procedures set by the networks.

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