SaltYou know you’ve chuckled at a few of them–the  ubiquitous internet meme.  But, have you ever wondered whether all this sharing, changing and going “viral” is legal.

Protecting or commercializing your meme

If you create or are the subject of a meme, it can be difficult to commercialize it or protect it. There are generally two “rights” that can be associated with a meme—trademark and copyright.

Copyright:  Copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. As the person who created a work, you have a copyright regardless of whether you file it with the U.S. Copyright Office.  To sue over a copyright, you need to register it, but your lack of registration does not otherwise lessen the right to claim something you created as yours.  If you take the picture, then generally you own the copyright. But, if you add a few new words to someone else’s picture, your addition does not likely transform ownership to you.

The point of internet memes, however, is that they be shared.  If you are aggressive and enforce your copyright, the meme won’t become, well, a meme.

Trademarks:  A trademark protects a word, phrase, symbol and/or design that distinguishes the source of the goods. These are brand marks that give a particular product or service a distinct identity or help consumers distinguish between various products or services. Could your meme be a source indicator for your goods or services?

Grumpy CatsIt does not happen often, but it has happened before.  Grumpycats.com turned its meme into a business by selling books, shirts, posters and even Christmas decorations. The trademark holder is the family who originally took the picture of the cat and posted it online. The original trademark registration listed the goods associated with the mark Grumpy Cat as “stuffed and plush toys, action figures, dolls and toy animals, all based on a real cat that is an internet meme.”

So what about the risk of using memes?

Most creators launch their memes for the love of the meme and want people to share and tweak. But, there have been claims in the past. Getty Images, which has a reputation for strictly enforcing their intellectual property, has enforced the use of one of its images in a meme.

The Socially Awkward Penguin was a short-lived meme that was shared and people would socially awkward oengineoften change the text to include awkward sayings. The original image of the penguin came from a National Geographic photographer and Getty Images enforced their rights and demanded money from people who used the image in memes.

But what about fair use?

Capture

Fair use is the most obvious defense to a claim. The problem with fair use is that there is no bright line test and no lawyer can guarantee you that a court would find that your use of the meme was a fair use.

The fair use factors include:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Because most memes are meant to be parodies or include critical comments in a non-commercialized way, fair use will likely save the day. If you use it in a commercial way in advertising or try to sell items using someone else’s images for Captureyour meme, then you will likely find yourself in trouble.

 

For the most part, internet memes are harmless fun. If you are sharing with your friends and commenting on current events, you likely don’t have much to worry about. Share the Salt Bae image to celebrate your buddy’s epic bottle flip. On the other hand, if you are using a meme to sell products, you may want to think twice.

If you created the original image that has gone viral and you want to sell products or otherwise monetize it, you may want to take the right legal steps to protect yourself.

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit ruled copyright owners must consider the fair use doctrine before sending a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in Lenz v. Universal Music Group. Read the case here: Lenz v. UMG – 9th Circuit

The case centered on this video.

As a father of two kids, the scene is very familiar. After the innocuous video was posted, Universal Music Group, the holder of the rights to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” sent a takedown notice under the DMCA.

The DMCA is a powerful weapon, but this is the first time a court has warned that copyright holders need to use it with some care. Generally, the DMCA works like this: a copyright owner sends a takedown notice to YouTube or wherever the infringing material is being hosted or displayed. To avoid any liability for the infringement, sites like YouTube immediately take it down and send a notice to the person who originally posted it. That person can challenge the takedown notice by going to court which is what happened in this case where the Electronic Frontier Foundation helped the mother.

The mother won at trial and recovered her attorneys’ fees under a rarely enforced section 512(f) process that allows for counter-challenges to prevail if the takedown was done in bad faith.

According to the Ninth Circuit, before sending the notice, a copyright holder is supposed to consider whether the allegedly infringing material is a fair use and only send a takedown if there is a good faith conclusion that the targeted upload is not a protected fair use of the copyrighted work.

While that sounds good, fair use is not easy for laypeople to understand because judges and lawyers have a hard time with it. Fair use is a factually-specific inquiry and there is no bright line test. Courts consider these four factors:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

There are a lot of close calls when it comes to fair use – the “dancing baby” was not one of them. I certainly would not re-play that racket to avoid having to pay to download “Let’s Go Crazy.”

The court recognized, on the other hand, that with rampant and easy infringement on the internet, a rights holder does not have to do an exhaustive fair use analysis, as long as there is some.  The court wrote it was “mindful of pressing crush of voluminous infringing content that copyright holders face in a digital age” and that the analysis “need not be searching or intensive.”

Application Today

There is little doubt that the DMCA is subject to abuse. For example, disgruntled politicians use it to remove content that is otherwise clearly a fair use. Ahsley Madison used it to remove the posting of its data online. With this new case, people may think twice before quickly sending the takedown notice.

Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” brings back memories of my seventh-grade talent show where I performed the routine with Brandon Berry at Atascocita Middle School.  I can’t remember if we won second or third place — there was stiff competition at AMS and someone with real talent actually won.

Capture-Who1It’s a good thing I did not record the performance and then try to monetize it on YouTube which luckily wasn’t around in 1987.

The people involved with the Tony-nominated play “Hand to God” have other concerns. The play has a scene where the lead does the routine using hand-puppets and now the heirs of William “Bud” Abbott and Lou Costello have sued for copyright infringement.  The lawsuit is here.

So Who, What and I Don’t Know are on defense? That’s Fair.

First you have to figure out if the plaintiffs own the copyright.  According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs state the copyright was originally held by Universal Pictures Co. after the act appeared in Universal’s One Night in the Tropics film in 1940 pursuant to a work for hire agreement with the two actors.

Then, in 1984, Universal transferred its copyright of the audio/visual depictions from the movies back to the heirs.  Because of the lack of copyright protections for pre-1972 sound records, the plaintiffs admit the sound recordings were not subject to their federal Copyright Act, but the plaintiffs claim they have a New York “common law” claim.   (see the issues facing Sirius/XM in this regard)

The most likely defense will be that the use of the routine was fair use.  Fair use is an affirmative defense to a copyright violation.  Fair use is a factually-specific inquiry and there is no bright line test. Courts consider these four factors:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Jokes and the dramatic arts have had some interesting fair use issues (the Jersey Boys use of Ed Sullivan and an entire production based on the sitcom Three’s Company for example)

According to The New York Times, the plaintiffs’ lawyer says there can be no fair use because “’Hand to God’ is using ‘Who’s on First’ not just to get laughs from the audience but also to get people to buy tickets.”

Why do I think fair use will ultimately prevail?  Because.  Maybe not Today or Tomorrow, but naturally the evidence will show that people are not going to the play just to see that one minute routine within the full production.  However, if the “The Hand of God” can use, why not everyone else which could have a big effect on the potential market for the copyrighted work.  Perhaps the unnamed right fielder should decide.

What about “I Don’t Give a Darn?” Is he in the Public Domain or at Short?

Just because the routine is available on YouTube does not mean it is in the public domain. As mentioned above, the copyright may cover just the script and limited recorded performances in the movies.  The routine has been done many times by many people.  It is not exactly clear who actually wrote the routine and Abbott allegedly performed the skit before he teamed up with Costello.

Plus, Abbott and Costello did not exactly follow a script when they performed it.  While I could almost recite it by memory, I know the version Brandon and I did was different than the one below.

This does not qualify the skit for “public domain” in the strict legal sense.  This article says some of the particularities about renewing the copyright to keep it alive may be challenged.  According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs do license the routine for public performances, so they certainly have incentive to try and protect it.

So, who wins the game?

As usual, the lawyers will win.  I am now interested in seeing the play and have watched the Abbott and Costello video again, so maybe everyone wins and Who’s wife will come down and pick up the checks.

The mid-terms are coming up, so you know there will be stories of politicians getting into clashes with artists over the use of songs and other content in ads and at rallies.  In Texas, for better or worse, the real competition is often in the Republican primary and several run-offs have already brought up some copyright issues.

But it’s a fair use!

Many ads use snippets from copyrighted TV news stories or headlines from local papers often citing fair use.   Fair use is an affirmative defense to a copyright violation meaning, it is the campaign’s burden to prove the use was fair.   Fair use is a factually-specific inquiry and there is no bright line test. Courts consider these four factors:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

A Texas Showdown Example

Dan Branch is a candidate in a run-off for Texas Attorney General.  NBC-owned Dallas station KXAS is arguing the Branch campaign used too much footage from its copyrighted newscast in this letter.

Specifically, NBC says the ad features “extensive use” of the story and features the voice and likeness of their anchor.  All but two seconds of music at the beginning is the TV news story.  NBC also says the use of the footage makes it appear the anchor and the station support the candidate and creates questions of journalistic integrity.

You can see the ad here for yourself.

NBC has demanded that the campaign cease further dissemination of the ad.  As of today, the video was still up under TexansforDanBranch on YouTube.

The run-off for the Republican primary in the race for Lt. Governor has gotten more attention including this ad:

Parody is also a defense to a copyright claim.  Yes, even bad parodies can be protected. Just think what happens when the ads start focusing on the people in the other party.

Related:

The DMCA and campaigns

We created this infographic for some of our media clients to give them a one-page cheat sheet on the analysis they need to do when trying to decide whether they can use an image from the internet in a pinch.

The infographic includes all the caveats because rarely can a legal issue be discerned down to one page with so few words.  In fact, I wrote a three-part series on this very topic last year.  

To view this as a pdf, click Use of Images InfoGraphic.

 

An artist purchased old Razr cell phones and then published what he found on those phones in a new book after his original artistic idea fell through.

You can watch Andrew Horansky’s KHOU-TV story to learn more of what happened.

You can also read more on it here from Dwight Silverman’s TechBlog.

From the legal perspective, there are several issues that immediately come to mind:

Copyright.  Genrerally speaking, if you took the picture, you own the copyright.   If the picture you took made it in the book, you could claim a copyright violation.  You would have a difficult time claiming any damages, but you might be able to get an injunction if you really pushed.  There is a possibility that the artist’s use is a fair use for artistic/critical purposes or that using the image with the others is a transformative use.  It is also possible to claim the copyright was abandoned and so the images are in the public domain, but that usually requires an express declaration that you don’t care if people copy your images rather than simply being careless and leaving it on your phone.

You could also claim a copyright in the texts, but short phrases and titles are not subject to copyright and there is some requirement of originality.  “Can’t wait 2 C U 2night and by U I mean ur penis” may not cut it.

Invasion of Privacy.   Many states recognize a common law claim for invasion of privacy.  Generally, a plaintiff would have to show the artist intentionally intruded on the person’s private affairs in a highly offensive manner.  This claim would require the jury to look at the reasonableness of all parties and may blame the person who turned over his phone without wiping it clean.

The claim for misappropriation of likeness for a commercial likeness also falls under privacy claims.  Generally, you would have to show the artist purposefully appropriated your likeness or name in a way where your likeness can be identified for a commercial purpose without your permission.  This claim usually applies to the use of celebrities without their permission more than an Average Joe, but you could argue this is not art or newsworthy and the artist is merely trying to make money from using the picture of you.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.   The CFAA is usually anti-hacking statute, but you could argue the artist knew he did not have authority to access the images and text and therefore exceeded his authority on a protected computer.  Would these older Razr phones be considered a computer and could you ever prove the necessary $5,000 in damages to bring such a claim?  It could be worth exploring.

Based on the reports, the artist appears ready to work with anyone who may be upset with his book, so this may be an academic discussion.  In fact, it does sound like a law school essay question.  You would just have to add a few additional juicy facts like one of the images included a picture of a famous copyrighted picture while another was a video of a famous musician before they were famous singing someone else’s copyrighted song.   Thank goodness I’m not in law school anymore.

Lesson Learned.  The obvious lesson is to make sure you clean your cell phone or smart phone before you upgrade.  Imagine if these phones belonged to a lawyer, doctor or other regulated profession and it had personal information.   You should have a policy in place to prevent this type of mistake from happening.