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The Culture of Memes as a Copyright Infringement


Internet memes, pics with juxtaposed textual content which evolve via imitation, duplicate, and mutation, have become a full-size phenomenon with thousands and thousands of memes being created and shared daily. Memes have an impact on cutting-edge communication and lifestyle, and are used as a form of entertainment, as enterprise and advertising tools, and as a method for making social observation. The ease with which memes may be created and shared has caused a vibrant social net lifestyle. Meme creators are normally now not the copyright proprietors in the underlying paintings: enormously, but there has been little litigation in this trouble. This article examines why felony claims based on copyright infringement are unlikely to be successful in the meme context.

According to a current survey by means of the Pew Research Center, in 2016 “In a complete populace basis (accounting for Americans who do not use the net at all), 68% of all U.S. Adults are Facebook users, whilst 28% use Instagram, 26% use Pinterest, 25% use LinkedIn and 21% use Twitter.” Of the Facebook users, 76% file that “they go to the site on a day by day foundation.” Instagram use is specifically high amongst younger adults, with roughly 59% of on-line adults a while 18-29 the use of Instagram. “Roughly half (51%) of Instagram customers get right of entry to the platform on a daily basis, with 35% announcing they do so several instances a day.” Although memes may be accessed on a selection of social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, this newsletter will usually focus on memes as they may be used on Instagram.


Instagram allows customers to right away proportion pics with their friends and fans. Once a consumer has created an account with Instagram, they may be able to “publish” pics to their feed. With the swipe of a finger, Instagram posts can also be shared on a consumer’s connected Facebook, Twitter, and Tumbler bills. Users can “follow” different money owed, which might be, for example, pals, associates, manufacturers, celebrities, political officers, accounts committed to posting images of dogs/towns/cupcakes and many others. There also are accounts which put up strictly humorous content material, which frequently includes memes.

To create an account a user need to accept Instagram’s Terms of Service. The Terms of Service is a “contract of adhesion” which “provide no room for negotiation – the person’s handiest options are to take it or leave it.” Instagram does no longer declare possession of any content material that customers submit: however, customers do supply Instagram “a non-special, completely paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, global license to use the Content that [is] submit[ed] on or through the Service.” Users constitute and warrant that they personal the Content which they submit.

In addition, customers represent and warrant that their postings “do not violate, misappropriate or infringe at the rights of any 1/3 party, including, without challenge, privacy rights, exposure rights, copyrights, trademark and/or different intellectual assets rights.” Users additionally agree to pay any royalties, prices, or debts for the content that they put up. Finally, users agree that content material posted to Instagram is not private and agree now not to maintain Instagram dependable “for any use or disclosure of any content material. “Instagram does offer a “copyright report form” which lets in customers to report content that they accept as true with infringes on their copyright. If a user again and again infringes on different human’s highbrow belongings rights, Instagram will disable the customer’s account “while appropriate.”


According to Merriam Webster, a meme is “an fun or interesting object (such as a captioned photo or video) or style of gadgets this is spread widely online in particular through social media.” “A meme normally includes a photo, short animation or snippet of video accompanied through a single quip (frequently in ambitious white textual content) acting at both the top and bottom of the photo. When analogizing a meme to a traditional joke, one ought to say that the photo generally serves because the setup, and the accompanying textual content serves because the punchline.”

It is beneficial to break memes into two classes: static memes, and mutating memes. Static memes are “visual snap shots which can be mere reproductions of an picture without altering it any way or imbuing it with any new meaning.” “Nothing of recognizable fee” has been added to the photo in a static meme. Take for example, the use of a photo of firefighters elevating an American flag close to the ruins of the World Trade Center on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist assaults. On the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, this photo changed into published on social media with the brought hashtag. The use of the image on this way adds “nothing to the picture itself; it's miles the use of the picture in the manner that it has been intended.” Mutating memes are “visible snap shots which have morphed beyond their beginning to act as their personal shape of communicative shorthand.” These mutating memes are the point of interest of this article. Once a meme is created, it can then be taken by by-product authors who create new posts which might be similar, however slightly special from the authentic. In fact, there are whole web sites which permit anybody to effortlessly create their personal meme. Some mutations of the meme will build “in the general direction of the meme and its previous variations, even as others alternate the meme considerably.” All the strands of memes are in the long run related to the original meme.


“Copyright protection subsists … in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now regarded or later developed, from which they may be perceived, reproduced, or in any other case communicated, either directly or with the aid of a device or device.” Under the Copyright Statute, a copyright holder of a photograph has the distinctive proper to reproduce the paintings, put together spinoff works, distribute copies of the work, and to display the paintings publically.

Copyright protection arises upon the advent of a work and no formalities are required. However, registration with the Copyright Office (which requires submitting an utility, paying the desired charge, and depositing copies with the Copyright Office) is a noticeably easy manner that can be accomplished on line, and offers statutory advantages to the copyright holder. Registration is a pre-condition to filing in shape for infringement and obtaining statutory damages and legal professional’s prices for all works. Owners of registered copyright can be presented a “sum of no longer much less than $750 or extra than $30,000” for every infringement.

This can be one reason why copyright infringement inside the shape of net memes are not heavily litigated. Although copyright protection arises upon the introduction of the paintings, most of the people who snap a image on their smartphone and upload it to Instagram do now not sign in it with the Copyright Office first. In addition, net memes would possibly upward thrust and fall in recognition before a copyright holder has even taken into consideration registering for copyright safety. Unless an image has already been registered with the Copyright Office, it can no longer be financially feasible or practical to pursue a declare of copyright infringement. Take for instance the meme known as “Salt Bae.” Salt Bae is the nickname given to chef Nusret Gökçe after a video of him “flamboyantly sprinkling salt on a carved steak” went viral. Within 48 hours of importing the video, it had over 2.4 million views and 8700 feedback. The still photograph become reposted as a meme on social media websites with a wide form of captions including “When you’re losing an issue so you convey up personal shit to overwhelm his soul” and “When you couldn’t think of any more examples and write and so on at the give up.”

Hypothetically, if Gökçe owned the legitimate but unregistered US copyright in his image and did now not want the image to be reposted with numerous captions it would be impractical for him to sue for copyright infringement. To do so might be very luxurious, and the real damages and lost income might be hard to show. In addition, Gökçe would pay for the legal charges involved with the lawsuit, that could effortlessly amount to tons more than any capacity damages. If, but, Gökçe had registered his work within 3 months of the first booklet, or earlier than the defendant’s infringing interest had started, he could be eligible for statutory damages for every infringement of each work and legal professional’s expenses. This may incentivize an lawyer to take his infringement case on a contingency foundation, resulting in little value to Gökçe up front.


Section 107 of the Copyright Statute affords that “the honest use of a copyrighted work … for functions together with criticism, comment, information reporting, teaching (such as a couple of copies for school room use), scholarship, or studies is not an infringement of copyright.” Fair use is the largest exemption for copyright infringement and tries to stability the rights of a “copyright holder with the general public's hobby in dissemination of statistics affecting regions of conventional concern, which includes art, technological know-how, records, or industry.”

When determining whether or not or now not a use is honest, courts bear in mind the following factors: “(1) the motive and person of the use, together with whether or not such use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit instructional functions; (2) the character of the copyrighted paintings; (three) the quantity and substantiality of the portion used when it comes to the copyrighted paintings as an entire; and (4) the impact of the use upon the capacity marketplace for or fee of the copyrighted work.”

Take for instance the Socially Awkward Penguin meme. The authentic picture turned into taken for the National Geographic and authorized to Getty Images. The classic meme suggests an off-stability penguin with a blue history and accompanying funny textual content which “usually narrates uncomfortable lifestyles conditions, highlighting an incredibly clumsy or inelegant reaction."

The Socially Awkward Penguin turned into extensively popular, and sooner or later morphed into derivative memes along with the “Socially Average Penguin” and “Socially Awesome Penguin.” Getty Images began quietly pursuing and settling a couple of infringement instances related to the Socially Awkward Penguin. Getty Images charged a blog approximately $900.00 in licensing costs and requested the weblog not to reveal their request. In reaction, the weblog posted Getty’s letter online. The net backlash became big, and information articles went directly to file that within the time that Getty had allowed the meme to flourish it had “some distance transcended” the authentic photo.

When assessing the Socially Awkward Penguin beneath the fair use analysis, the primary thing, whether or no longer the paintings is transformative, would likely weigh in prefer of a locating of truthful use. The target audience for the two works are not the same: one is for instructional functions/nature pictures of the National Geographic; the alternative is for humorous remark on awkward life conditions. Further, it is far controversial that a “reasonable observer” could view a meme as a change of the unique image. The 2nd component, the nature of the underlying work, could probably weigh against a finding of fair use because the underlying work become a photo which courts have a tendency to treat as unique in 3 respects: rendition, timing, and creation of the issue. Factor 3, the amount, and substantiality of the underlying paintings may weigh in desire against a finding of truthful use. Here, even though the meme creators could argue that they did no longer take the entire photo (because the photo of the penguin has been cut and pasted on a blue background), the copyright proprietor would argue that they despite the fact that took the coronary heart of the paintings. This argument might be made with the aid of displaying the penguin become the point of interest of unique picture. The impact of the use upon the potential market, issue four, could likely weigh in choose of honest use, due to the fact a meme does not influence the authentic market of the character image. However, National Geographic may want to doubtlessly counter this argument by displaying that there is a market for them to license photos to meme creators.

In the year 1976, Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist devised, the term 'meme' in his e book "The Selfish Gene". In this book, Dawkins defines the meme as a unit of cultural that means, together with a cost or an concept, that is passed from one technology to any other. Dawkins in addition illustrated that the meme is the cultural counterpart to the unit of physical heredity. In recent instances, the maximum popular information of memes might be illustrations, images or film excerpts which can be superimposed with text with a humorous undertone, hence located in a completely new funny context. These internet jokes (memes) spread like wildfire within the net community, for this reason making the memes viral. The primary trouble right here is whether those mild-hearted memes which might be basically ironic and important; functioning as a parody for the main content material is infringing copyrights of the authentic artist?

A meme might fall underneath the ambit of 'creative works' that is defined below the availability of section 2 (c) of the Copyright Act, 1957 which states that an inventive works encompass artwork, sculptures, drawings (consisting of diagrams, maps, charts or plans), engravings, pictures, works of structure and works of creative craftsmanship. As stated earlier, an image/image in a meme is in most cases copyrighted, therefore sharing without an authorization will constitute an infringement. Any kind of duplicate by manner of distribution and sharing of the meme, which has copyright wholly or partly, could come below the ambit of being an 'infringing reproduction' as said in phase 2 (m) (i) of the Copyright Act.

In order to effectively benefit the truthful use defence in India, an author has to satisfy two situations: (i) the purpose to compete with the copyright holder should now not be there; and (ii) fallacious usage of the original picture/photograph/video, and many others. Must now not be done. The first situation, additionally referred to as the marketplace substitution test, can be effortlessly won as the primary motive of a meme is taking a sardonic or comical take on something regarding someone and does no longer are seeking to compete with the right holder. The second condition entails the time 'flawed use', that is a completely large term and cannot be described in a strait jacket definition instead it is open for interpretation and further deliberation. Since meme is for a laugh functions, they hardly ever come underneath the purview of mistaken use except they appear to be blatantly offensive to the right holder.

The 'fair use" doctrine is a valid protection in cases of copyright infringement. The Copyright Act enlists 4 various factors to decide using copyright paintings is honest or no longer, however none of those elements are determinative. The first issue is the purpose and the person of the use, 2nd factor talks approximately the nature of the copyrighted work. The 0.33 component talks approximately the quantity and substantiality of the element used when it comes to the copyrighted paintings. The closing issue talks about the impact of the use upon the ability market regarding the copyrighted work.

The memes which weigh towards fair use, as an instance a meme that an corporation creates and distributes for income and marketing purposes has a business element. These memes are exclusive to the Internet memes created by way of lovers, people, and many others. If the character of the copyrighted work is more genuine and contemporary (as an instance, an image of a historic discern), instead of something greater innovative (as an instance, a clip from a motion picture), this can favour fair use. If the meme includes a brief clip from an extended film, then the amount and substantiality of the use issue will desire honest use; but this will not be the same case while the meme consists of a unmarried picture/picture.

Till date, India has no longer witnessed any meme-ology litigation. But within the USA, Warner Bros faced litigation below copyright infringement once they used the well-known 'Nyan Cat' and 'Keyboard Cat' in their recreation Scribblenauts and needed to pay heavy compensation to the plaintiffs Charles Schmidt and Christopher Orlando Torres. AT&T President Aaron Slater faced $one hundred million racial discrimination litigation after he shared an notorious racist meme3

As its miles said above, memes do not have any industrial fee and that they generally fall underneath the ambit of truthful use defence. But this protection might not paintings, whilst there is infringement regarding proper to privateness of an individual. The defence of proper to speech and expression will no longer paintings whilst people/celebrities begin the use of their publicity/privacy rights in opposition to 'wrong' perpetrators. Copyright infringement comes into photograph where there may be non-obtainment of consent from the author/individual before the use of his/her photo. Therefore, younger and novice creators must procure necessary licenses and approvals from the copyright holders to save you any liability within the destiny.

Case Laws

  • India Independent News v Yashraj Films Pvt Ltd.

The doctrine of de minimis has been applied by the Delhi High Court as a defence for copyright infringement. The doctrine states that the “the law does not concern itself with trifles” and has long been recognised as a common law defence, as well as a defence in criminal actions. The de minimis maxim has a significant bearing on copyright law, given the massive volume of petty copyright ‘infringements’ that take place daily, which go unnoticed.

The Delhi High Court applied the doctrine while deciding a copyright infringement suit in India Independent News v Yashraj Films Pvt Ltd. Here, a singer appeared on a television chat show, and parts of a popular song were played during the singer’s interview. The alleged infringement was deemed de minimis and therefore not actionable, and in the process the court laid down five considerations for such cases:

  • the size and type of harm – in the case at hand, it was found that only five words were used. The judges considered this to be too trivial and insignificant to warrant an actionable claim.

  • the cost of adjudication – this relates to the amount that would be charged by the copyright owner when compared to the cost of adjudication.

  • the purpose of the violated legal obligation.

  • the effect on legal rights of third parties

  • the intent of the alleged wrongdoer.

Section 52 of the Copyright Act 1957 sets out the exceptions that have been deemed not to amount to infringement of copyright. The applicability of de minimis as a defence has been recognised in India beyond the scope of Section 52 of the act. The courts have liberally accommodated the de minimis defence, taking into consideration the end motive of the alleged infringer, despite the lack of apparent textual legislative support. Nevertheless, there is perhaps some textual support. As is the case across the globe, copyright infringement is established when the alleged infringer reproduces the work ‘as is’ or reproduces a substantial portion of the work. Logically then, where a court concludes that the amount of reproduction in a given case is de minimis, the corollary could be that the reproduction involved was not substantial. Of course, it is important in such cases to ensure that the first of the above five principles (ie, size and type of harm) is assessed not only from a quantitative perspective, but also in terms of qualitative purpose. Future cases may clarify this point.

  • Eros International v BSNL

The Bombay High Court took a different stand on the nature and scope of such orders. The injunction sought in this case, among other things, was directed to prevent ISPs from infringing the copyright of a film that was scheduled to be released a few days after the date of filing the suit. The single judge denied such a sweeping order and instead allowed the rights holder to seek appropriate orders against a list of verified specific URLs within websites that contained the infringing content. One important fact was that the websites in question were also making available certain legitimate content, and the court felt that while rights holders are anxious to protect their copyright, the rights of the public should also be considered – at least, as far as the legitimate content was concerned.

Accordingly, the court allowed the blocking of certain specific URLs within websites, which went through a three-step verification:

  • verification and an assessment by a software company, involving the plaintiffs, to verify the list of URLs.

  • verification by the deponent signing the affidavit; and

  • the entire material being placed on affidavit, which was on oath.

However, these limitations do not set a precedent, given the fact that the decision was issued in an interim application only and is not binding on other high courts in India (or the Supreme Court). Further, the fact remains that URLs are much easier to create than entire websites; thus, blocking only specific URLs, as opposed to entire websites, may be worthwhile for only a few hours.

  • Booz Allen and Hamilton Inc v SBI Home Finance Ltd

The Supreme Court examined the arbitrability of disputes that were in rem, holding such disputes to be inherently non-arbitrable. IP rights are obviously in rem, and the IP rights typically held in the media and entertainment industry are no exception. However, the Supreme Court recognised that this rule is not infallible and that subordinate rights in personam that arise from rights in rem might be subject to arbitration. Does that mean that IP rights and related issues are subject to arbitration? The importance of this question lies in the fact that Indian courts are now considered to be reasonably liberal in granting quick and effective orders to remedy infringements. The same is not necessarily the case with arbitration cases; hence, where infringement-related issues get tied to contractual disputes, the parties being forced into arbitration can result in the continuing use of the intellectual property in question pending adjudication of the dispute, much to the dissatisfaction of the rights holder.

  • Eros International Media Limited v Telemax Links India Pvt Limited

The Bombay High Court ruled that it would be very troubling to hold that all disputes dealing with rights that arise from intellectual property are “inherently non-arbitrable”. The court held that infringement is typically an issue in personam since a finding of infringement against one alleged infringer does not affect others. This was not the case with validity, since the grant or revocation of any IP right always acts in rem. Therefore, an IP dispute arising out of or connected with an agreement with an arbitration clause was nevertheless arbitrable. The court held that the arbitration tribunal had the same powers as a civil court and thus could consider IP issues, except issues surrounding their validity.

  • Mr. Anil Gupta And Anr. vs Mr. Kunal Dasgupta And Ors.

In this case, Plaintiff accused the Defendant of copyright infringement. The Plaintiff claimed that he represented and gave concept notes relating to the idea of Match Making in which the ancient concept of swayamwar was inscribed. Hence, when Defendant launched a T.V. show called “Shubh Vivah” in which the girls were given an opportunity to choose their spouse from the prospective candidates present as the potential suitors, Plaintiff instantly filed for copyright infringement. Court held that Copyright of the Plaintiff was infringed. It was held by the court that this was confidential information disclosed to the Defendant and secondly, Court recognized the need to protect the effort of sweat and blood of an artist in this case. The court held that the Defendant is liable for Copyright Infringement because the fundamental aspects of the idea and the mode of expression were copied from the Plaintiff. Like, a T.V. show as a form of expression, the girl gets to choose the husband of a choice from multiple suitors and many other similarities.

  • R.G Anand vs M/S. Delux Films & Ors-

FACTS: The facts of this case were that the plaintiff being a playwriter wrote a play named “Hum Hindustani” in the year 1953. He said that he narrated the play to the defendant which later was converted into a film. The plaintiff claimed that the film “New Delhi” is a total copy of his idea and claimed copyright infringement. This is a Landmark case in which the Hon’ble Supreme Court laid out certain essential principles relating to copyright infringement. Which were further cited and used in number of cases as guiding principles. This case clearly stated that the umbrella of copyright protection is only limited to the expression, form, arrangement and the manner in which the idea is represented. Copyright protection does not extend to an idea, subject matter, themes, plots, historical events or legendary facts. The Court further explained that if a substantial portion of an artwork is copied, leading to fundamental similarities in respect of the mode of expression adopted in the work. This would amount to infringement of copyright.

  • Sanjay Kumar Gupta v. Sony Picture Networks India Pvt. Ltd-

This case also dealt with similar issues as that of R. G Anand Case. In this case, the appellant used the term “Jeeto Unlimited” for a game show concept. Where people could win gifts by answering questions in a quiz contest. Appellant said that the respondent compelled them to sign a consent letter permitting Sony Network(respondent) to use the concept without incurring any liability. Later copyright infringement was filed by the plaintiff against the popular game show KBC on Sony Network. Using and citing the principles of R. G. Anand Case, the decision was granted in favor of Sony Network. The court clearly mentioned that getting the audience involved in a television program is a recurring phenomenon. Also, the selection of candidates through answering question displayed on their T.V screen is substantially different from the appellant's concept.


Memes are steady with copyrights goal to sell the progress of science and useful arts. As a final example, consider the recent Kendall Jenner for Pepsi business. This commercial depicts model Kendall Jenner becoming a member of a protest and defusing the tension with police officers through handing one a can of Pepsi. Social media users used memes to mock the ad by “putting cans of Pepsi into well-known pix of protests and instances of police brutality.” Pepsi pulled the upload after less than 48 hours after this backlash from social media. In end, it might possibly be futile to attempt to prevent the introduction of memes through copyright regulation. Although Instagram users should check in every photograph that they submit, this will be burdensome, and directly conflict with the “immediately” nature of Instagram. Even if an image became registered, litigation might be time consuming and potentially bring about negative backlash from net users inside the form of narration and remark.

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