I Can Haz Memes in Advertising?

June 13, 2013 Published by

It’s safe to say that today, one does not simply read a funny meme and not share it with friends. The best memes are shared hundreds of thousands of times, and have become a popular marketing tool for brands. For example, Virgin used ‘Success Kid’ in a marketing campaign in the UK and everyone’s favourite ‘Grumpy Cat’ is now appearing in TV commercials for Friskies.

Original photograph: Laney Griner

Brands are recognizing the power of memes to attract attention and facilitate engagement. The problem is that using memes for commercial purposes could violate all of the intellectual property laws.

Original Artwork: Allie of

Several different groups of people may hold intellectual property rights in a meme:

  1. the creator of the meme may hold intellectual property rights (including copyright and/or a trade mark) in the meme’s words and images. For example, the owners of Grumpy Cat (real name: Tardar Sauce) have applied for trade mark protection for the name ‘Grumpy Cat’ and her image; and
  2. if the meme is based on a separate work(s), it may incorporate the copyright, trade marks and other intellectual property rights of a third party. For example, Futurama Fry, which is a still taken from the TV show Futurama.

Original Photograph: Bryan Bundesen/Tabatha Bundesen

To use a meme in an advertising campaign, it is best practice to ensure you have a licence from the creator of the meme itself and a licence from the holder of rights in any underlying work. Before using ‘Success Kid’, Virgin sought permission from the image owner (in this case the child’s mother), and paid for use of the image. Untangling the web of ownership in a meme might be complicated, but it is a necessary #firstworldproblem. While liability for copyright infringement is subject to a number of fair dealing defenses, including:

  1. fair dealing for criticism or review;
  2. fair dealing for news reporting; and
  3. fair dealing for parody or satire,

it is unlikely that the use of a copyrighted work for commercial or profit making purposes would attract these defences.

Meme owners are unafraid to enforce their rights. Movie giant Warner Bros is currently being sued by the inventors of the popular memes Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat. The owners allege that Warner Bros and game developer 5th Cell have knowingly and intentionally infringed the plaintiffs’ copyrights and trademarks by using Nyan Cat and [Keyboard Cat] Fatso’s image in Warner Bros’ top selling ‘Scribblenauts’ games, available on Nintendo DS and other platforms.

Things have become a little catty, with the meme owners pointing out that many companies have respected their intellectual property rights by regularly paying substantial license fees to use the memes.

So Y U NO get the copyright holder’s permission? As Warner Bros is learning the hard way, obtaining permission (and paying any licence fees) is essential. Once you have done this, you will be able to watch your meme spread throughout the Internet, safe in the knowledge that you are abiding by intellectual property laws like a boss.

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