Most people who are active on the internet are accustomed to seeing many different memes on a daily basis. People take famous photos or freeze frames from movies, attach their own funny and/or enlightening quotes to them and post them on the internet. Some of these memes go viral and get seen by millions of people, but few people ever stop to think about who owns these memes.
In the United States, memes are most often generated and distributed without much, if any, thought to copyright issues, but it’s a slightly different story in Germany. Recently Get Digital, a German company, received a notification that it owed Getty Images licensing fees for a penguin meme that appeared on one of its blogs.
Getty Images owns the rights to National Geographic‘s photos and the meme on Get Digital’s blog allegedly originated from a photo taken by a National Geographic staff photographer. Get Digital claims the amount Getty Images demanded was double what would be considered a normal licensing fee, but the company paid up anyway. It wasn’t until Getty Images allegedly required confidentiality regarding the transaction that Get Digital decided it had had enough.
Instead of keeping quite, Philipp Stern, the co-CEO of Get Digital, did the opposite and published two blog posts about the incident: one in German and one in English. Three months after those blog posts went up, Get Digital reported it had not heard any further complaints or demands from Getty Images.
Although Getty Images may have had a valid complaint against Get Digital, taking action may not have been in the company’s best interests. The two blog posts in two different languages posted by one of the CEOs of the company probably drew negative attention to the business practices of Getty Images – something that could result in a backlash that could have been avoided if Getty Images hadn’t decided to pursue its perceived copyright of a meme inspired by one of the many photos they own.
Nevertheless, Getty Images is not the only company to demand either compensation, or the removal of a meme. Brad Kim, an editor for a website called Know Your Meme, which explains and keeps a catalogue of memes, says he has removed at least 20 entries and deleted even more after copyright owners have asked for certain images to be taken down. He says it’s not unusual for companies to send takedown notices to those who post memes online, but he also said that the practice has been known to backfire, especially when it’s a large company asking for a meme to be removed.
When internet users believe large corporations are using their power to bully people into removing content, their revenge can be swift and powerful. Recently, YouTube was asked to take down a series of videos in which clips from Das Untergang, a German movie about WWII, were given different subtitles that portrayed Hitler ranting about current politics or video games. Those videos were removed, but then more were uploaded from the same movie that depicted Hitler ranting about fair use.
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