Mother and Photographer Fumes Over Unlawful Use of Meme
You may have seen the original photograph: sitting on the beach is an adorable almost-toddler, fist raised, looking determined and intense, straight at the camera which his mom, Laney Griner, is holding. The image is known as “Success Kid” and became an instant viral sensation. It is a meme used around the internet for a variety of purposes, most of which express appreciation delight in earning a victory, recovering from a tough situation, or determination to succeed.
According to a recent New York Times (NYT) article, Griner took the picture described above, of her then 11-month-old son on the beach and registered her copyright in 2012. Since the photo became a meme, Griner has had little trouble with how the image has been used- until recently.
Congressman Accused of Using Meme in Violation of Photographer’s Copyright
Republican congressman, Steve King of Iowa, used this photograph in his campaign fundraising materials, and Griner won’t stand for it. King posted on his Facebook page, the photo of Success Kid, superimposed onto a picture of Congress along with the slogan “fund our memes.” The image was linked to a fundraising page hosted by King’s political action committee WinRed.
Through a cease-and-desist letter from her lawyer, Griner expressed dismay that King violated her copyright by using her son’s image without permission. Griner claims she would never permit King to use the photo, in light of his controversial political platforms.
The meme, according to the letter, became the viral sensation it did, primarily because of “its good-natured, friendly message.” King’s use of the meme “harmed and continues to harm that well-earned goodwill.”
How? Griner told the NYT that King’s record of bigotry and hatred toward immigrants and defense of white supremacists are not things with which she would ever want the image to be associated. She said she would never allow its use for something negative but that King is “the worst of the worst.”
Letter Claims Political PAC Violated Copyright Law
Griner accuses King of violating her copyright by using the meme without her permission to fundraise for the republican party. The letter from her lawyer also alleges that WInRed violated her copyright as well, which violates not only the law but the conditions of the political action committee.
Photographer With Copyright Tries to Maintain Control Over Meme
Griner is not against granting permission for her son’s image to be used in political or commercial campaigns. For example, in 2013, with her consent, President Obama used the image as part of an immigration reform promotion during his campaign. Griner also has agreements with several large companies that want to use the meme for various purposes.
Does a Photograph Lose Its Copyright Because it Becomes a Meme?
The simple answer is no. Nowadays, it becomes more and more difficult to control where your images end up, how they get used, and what they might be used to represent. However, it does not mean your rights should be ignored. Many people register copyrights specifically to ensure they retain some control over how a meme gets used- whether this is for commercial purposes or in association with something the copyright holder perceives as harmful. As one lawyer told the NYT, “a picture does not lose its copyright just because it becomes a meme.”
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