Wil on May 24th, 2013
So, Astrid and I were talking about possible topics for today’s blog, and she suggested writing about this article: http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2013/05/07/copyright-memes-and-the-perils-of-viral-content/
Being about internet culture and gaming, I was especially interested in it, but I wasn’t really sure about what the take-away message was.
Wil: So, Astrid, what can we take away from the article?
Astrid: I think the message is to be aware that there’s an underlying copyright in memes. I’m not entirely sure that copyright would subsist in the short amount of text each time, but there will be a copyright in the original image. Remember that time I did the talk and I wanted to use a meme from Lolcats? I contacted them for permission to use it, hoping they’d be able to license it to me, but they advised that while they had the right to make it available on their website, they didn’t have the right to sub-license it and that they’d have to contact the owner of the image on my behalf. I never received a response, so I sourced an alternative image.
Wil: So basically, just because you find something on a website — even one as popular as I Can Haz Cheezburger, it doesn’t mean that you can go ahead and use their content how ever you please, right?
Astrid: I think you have to focus more on what your use is. The nature of a meme is that it is shared virally and many of the websites we use to share memes allow people to share content via their “share this” button. Many of the sites we use with these functions are based in the US where Fair Use is applicable, and so most of the personal non-commercial sharing that goes on is allowed and users agree to abide by this when they sign up and in theory, I guess uploaders agree to the same so there’s probably an argument for an implied licence from the copyright owner that you can “share” this. But there’s a difference between a personal, non-commercial share and a company using a meme as a tool within their advertising to increase their client base and make money. (Not to mention that uploaders technically agree that they will only upload images they own or have the right to upload!) I think most copyright owners of the images in memes have no issue with you or me using their picture to create a meme to share with friends – there’s no money being made, we’re just mucking around with it – the copyright owner isn’t losing out on an income they would otherwise have. I put this article Copycats, Takedowns, and Ass Rainbows: What Does Copyright Mean for Internet Memes? in a blog post a while ago, because it’s a really good illustration of this issue.
Wil: The article talks about the creators behind Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat suing Warner Bros. and 5th Cell (the game developer behind Scribblenauts game series) because these companies failed to seek the appropriate licences to include their meme creations in the game. But that second article you linked to leads us into murkier territory as it reveals the meme itself was a conglomeration of GIF images, music and such created by different people making copyright ownership difficult to determine. To avoid these sorts of copyright nightmares, I think it would be helpful for our readers to know how they can protect their work in the digital wilderness that is the web. I’m a big fan of embedding metadata in the works you create, but not a lot of people know what it is and what it does — maybe I should have written about that instead?
Astrid: Determining a copyright owner can be difficult if there’s not one body – like a producer or distributor that can manage the rights on behalf of everyone. A number of people can be responsible for a particular creation – With Nyan Cat, you have copyright in the image, copyright in the musical composition and copyright in the sound recording. The key is what you’re using in this instance – if you’re just using the image, you need permission from the copyright owner of the image. If you’re using all of the above, you need permission from all three. Again, for personal non-commercial uses, the individual creators didn’t seem to mind… it’s when someone wants to commercialize that we have an issue. Anywho, at the heart of it you’re right, issues about locating copyright owners can be avoided and while you can’t guarantee your work won’t be infringed, you can certainly do as many things as you can to make it easy for people to do the right thing. But this post is long enough – we can help our readers in the next post!