“Can memes be copyrighted?” Do you have this doubt as a content creator?

In today’s digital age, memes are a universal form of entertainment and communication.

They are shared, remixed, and repurposed across various social media platforms at lightning speed.

However, have you ever paused to think about the  implications behind these popular digital artifacts?

“Can memes be copyrighted?” is a question that’s gaining increasing attention as the line between humor, creative expression, and legal boundaries becomes blurred.

In this blog post, we delve into the fascinating intersection of memes and  law.

We’ll unravel how the law perceives these viral phenomena and the implications for creators, sharers, and those who find themselves unexpectedly becoming the subject of a meme.

Let’s embark on this intriguing journey into the world of memes and the laws that may, or may not, govern them.

Can Memes be Copyrighted?

Copyright On Memes

The idea of copyright on memes can seem paradoxical. Memes, by their nature, are often created from pieces of existing content and then shared, modified, and spread widely across the internet.

They are embodiments of the digital culture that thrives on the remix and reinterpretation of content.


Law aims to protect original works of authorship once they are fixed in a tangible medium.

This includes literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.


Can Meme Creators Claim to be a Copyright Owner?

The question of whether meme creators can claim ownership is a complex one, and it largely hinges on the originality and creativity imbued in the meme, and the jurisdiction’s law.

Copyright law generally protects original works of authorship.

If a meme is created entirely from scratch using original elements, the creator could likely claim  ownership over that meme.

However, most memes involve the use of pre-existing images, videos, or other content, which are then modified with humorous or insightful text or other alterations.


If a meme merely adds text to an existing  image, it’s debatable whether this transformation is significant enough to warrant a new copyright.


A derivative work is a work based on or derived from one or more already existing works.

If the meme is sufficiently transformative, meaning it adds new expression, meaning, or message to the original, it could potentially be considered a derivative work and be eligible for  protection.

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The “fair use” doctrine could also come into play here.

If the creation of the meme falls under fair use, the creator wouldn’t necessarily own the to the meme, but they could use the copyrighted material without infringing the owner’s rights.

Consequences of Copyright Infringement in Memes

Account Suspension

Repeated infringements can lead to more severe penalties on digital platforms.

Users might receive strikes or warnings initially, but continued violations can result in the suspension or permanent closure of the user’s account.

Legal Action

In some instances, holders might choose to pursue legal action against the infringer.

This could lead to court proceedings and potentially significant financial penalties if the court determines that infringement has occurred.

This is more common in cases where the infringement has a substantial negative impact on the  holder’s potential market.

Public Relations Fallout

For businesses or public figures, infringing on copyright could lead to negative publicity and damage to their reputation.

Furthermore, attempts to enforce copyright on widely shared memes could lead to a backlash from the online community (known as the “Streisand Effect”).

Fair Use Doctrine in Memes

The “Fair Use” doctrine, a fundamental component of U.S. copyright law, is often invoked in discussions around copyright and memes.

The aim is to balance the interests of copyright owners with the societal benefit of free expression, especially in cases of commentary, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, and education.

The application of fair use to memes, however, is not straightforward. It relies on a careful consideration of four factors outlined in the Copyright Act:

The Purpose and Character of the Use

This examines how the copyrighted material is used.

If a meme is created for non-profit, educational, or transformative purposes — where the original work is given new meaning or context — it may lean towards fair use.

However, a meme that is commercial in nature, or one that merely repurposes the original content without adding significant creative transformation, might infringe on copyright.

The Nature of the Copyrighted Work

This considers whether the original work is more factual or creative. Factual works are less protected by copyright, making it easier for their use in memes to be deemed fair use.

The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used

This assesses both the quantity of the copyrighted work used and the qualitative significance of the portion used.

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While memes often use only a small part of a copyrighted work, if that part is central or ‘the heart’ of the work, it could still be seen as an infringement.

The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market for or Value of the Copyrighted Work

If a meme negatively impacts the potential market for the original work, it may be considered a copyright infringement.

However, most memes are unlikely to substitute for the original work in its primary market.

Conclusion

In conclusion, for the question ‘can memes be copyrighted?”, the answer is yes!

While memes are generally created from pre-existing, often copyrighted content, they also involve an element of creativity and transformation which blurs the clear-cut lines of copyright infringement.

The key considerations here are the concepts of “derivative works” and “fair use”, which could potentially allow meme creators to claim copyright over their creations or use copyrighted content without infringement.

However, these doctrines are complex and subjective, and their interpretation can vary widely, making it challenging to predict their application with certainty.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can memes be copyrighted?

Yes, memes can be subject to copyright. If a meme is created using original, creative content, the creator could potentially claim copyright ownership.

However, most memes use pre-existing, often copyrighted, content.
The use of such content in memes could infringe the copyright owner’s rights, unless it falls under a copyright exception like fair use.

Can I use copyrighted images to create memes?

Using copyrighted images to create memes without permission potentially infringes on the copyright owner’s rights.

However, if your use of the image constitutes fair use, it could be permissible.

Fair use is complex and context-dependent, considering factors like the purpose of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount used, and the effect on the market for the original work.

Does crediting the original creator allow me to use a copyrighted image in a meme?

While it’s good practice to credit original creators, it doesn’t negate the need for permission or a license to use copyrighted work.

Unless your use of the work falls under a copyright exception like fair use, you would typically need to obtain permission from the copyright owner to use their work in your meme.

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Are all memes subject to copyright?

Not necessarily. Memes that use public domain content, or content that isn’t subject to copyright (like factual information or federal government works in the U.S.), would not be subject to copyright.

Additionally, memes that sufficiently transform copyrighted content may be considered derivative works and could potentially qualify for their own copyright protection under certain circumstances.