Famous on the Internet: The Spectrum of Internet Memes and the Legal Challenge of Evolving Methods of Communication
21 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2017
Date Written: April 1, 2017
On a daily basis, millions of Internet users re-blog, re-tweet, and re-post the content of others on social media. It is conduct that has led to a flourishing social Internet culture, but it is also conduct that implicates many clashing interests. For some, an Internet meme is a work of their own creativity whose co-option by the Internet at large is an act of infringement. For others, an Internet meme is a violation of their privacy resulting in severe emotional distress. For still others, an Internet meme is a vital communicative tool expressing particular ideas that cannot be articulated in any other way. This Article argues that the legal analyses applied to memes should strive to seek a balance between all of these interests, promoting the continuation of meme culture while also protecting those harmed by meme culture’s excesses.
This Article uses the examples of a number of different memes to demonstrate that meme usage encompasses a spectrum of activity ranging from static to mutating in nature. These different uses have correspondingly different impacts on the legal rights of all three meme interest groups, none of which are adequately captured by traditional applications of existing doctrines of intellectual property or privacy laws. This Article posits that explicit acknowledgment of the wide spectrum of meme behavior should be used to help guide and appropriately adjust the application of legal doctrine to the meme in question, with attention paid to the underlying policy interests of a particular meme use. This can lead to more effective legal decisions regarding these memes that balance more precisely the interests of all those affected — both negatively and positively — by Internet meme culture.
Keywords: Copyright, Publicity Rights, Privacy Rights, Fair Use, Internet, Memes
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