Law On Internet Memes

Internet users in India spend half their time on social media every day. It is one of the most efficient platforms for communication yet the most exploited one. One such famous platform would be Facebook, an online networking site that mostly everyone is aware of. Similarly, internet ‘meme’ is also ubiquitous It is defined as “an idea, behaviour, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” These memes are a subset of the behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-generic memes. In legal terms, it is a ‘derivative work’ and only the copyright owner has the legal right to create such work. Although, if the person claims to have made a “fair use” of the copyrighted work, it can be used as a defense under the provisions of the Copyright Act.

Now, lets come back to the debate as to whether memes shall be protected under the copyright and Trade Mark law or not. You may think that no one is the owner of such memes, rather it is just a creation of the internet but the Law may think differently as some memes do qualify for copyright protection and at some point, they were created by some person who could be the owner of the right. For instance, a meme called the “Grumpy cat” became so famous that it was turned into a business through selling books, posters, mugs, etc. in the name of “Grumpycats.com” and was granted a trademark for the same.

Even though a lot of memes are shared on the internet for the sole purpose of fun, there have been instances in the past that states otherwise. Just like in the case of Getty Images, an American agency which supplies images and illustrations that sent letters demanding license fees who exploited their copyrighted content was an image of “Awkward Penguin”, a photograph taken by George Moberly, a National Geographic photographer, for which Getty enjoys the licensing. Posting a meme on a personal blog (non-monetized) or a personal social network account might not be challenged. However, if it is for a commercial purpose, it might violate the copyright.

Assuming that these marks are registered in India, they will be governed by the Trade Marks Act. Now, if the image on a meme is being used on goods and services or for other commercial purposes, it would lead to infringement of the trademark under Section 29 of the Act which clearly states that a mark may be infringed by use of spoken words or their visual representation meaning that even a slight usage or any modification of that image on social media would result in infringement. However, this provision is only applied to registered marks and not unregistered.

Even though Copyright law in India does not specifically provide remedy in the case of parody, the owner of such artistic work can reach the Court for infringement of his right as any use of the Copyrighted work if,  it is  not a “fair use” can result to infringement leading to a lawsuit.

Even though its tempting to think that viral content is nothing but part of the web that is “owned by everyone”, there is still some source attached to the work and if such work amounts to copyright, the owner should be provided with the rights for the same. Memes are a rapid business and do not get immunity from the skirmishes of copyright and trademark, thus leading to more upcoming battles in court.

Author: Ms. Tushita Dogra, intern at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys. Can be reached at swapnils@khuranaandkhurana.com

References:

[1] https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2013/05/07/copyright-memes-and-the-perils-of-viral-content/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/09/08/how-copyright-is-killing-your-favorite-memes/?utm_term=.64b3b3aa2474

[3] http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/do_memes_violate_copyright_law

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