Can you sue over a meme? Turns out, you can.
There are many reasons for suing someone, and with technology changing the ways in which we interact in both public and private, there are more and more ways to seek legal compensation for harms done. Camera phones, small concealed listening devices, and social media have all changed the ways in which we view privacy…and how we fight for it. It should be no surprise that several companies and individuals have now been sued for a meme.
In fact, for almost a decade now, memes have been the center of a number of legal battles. Some of these focus on “fair use” and copyright issues. Others have been cases that focus on the invasion of privacy or defamation. Many of these cases end up being settled out of court.
So, someone be sued for a meme? Sure. Should you try to bring a case against someone? More importantly, is it worth speaking to a lawyer about the possibility? The answer may well be “yes,” depending on the reasons you are seeking damages.
Some Famous Legal Cases of Suing Someone Over a Meme
There are now some legal precedents for people suing over a meme. We break these up into two broad categories: Defamation/Invasion of Privacy and Fair Use.
Defamation and Invasion of Privacy
Wrong kind of star. Some years ago, the mother of a young girl who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome filed suit against Dancing with the Stars professional Valentin Chmerkovskiy and CBS Corp. (among others). She alleged that the defendants caused a distasteful meme of her daughter to go viral. The meme is based on a picture taken in 2008 at a minor league baseball game; the picture depicts a young girl drinking what appears to be a “sugary” drink near a concession stand. (The picture shall not be re-posted here out of respect for the family.) The picture was captioned, “Letting your kid become obese should be considered child abuse.”
CBS News and Chmerkovskiy had allegedly posted this photo to a website and social media account, whereupon it was widely distributed over the internet. Soon after, the picture was discovered by the family, who, allegedly, requested that Chmerkovskiy remove the picture from his Facebook page. When he refused, the family sued the photographer, CBS News, and Chmerkovsky over the meme in a lawsuit claiming that posting it was “intentional, deliberate, and malicious.” The photographer and CBS eventually settled with the family.
A party in the back, but not for everyone. Ali Ziggi Mosslmani, a teenager from western Sydney, Australia, sued several media companies after someone snapped a picture of him dancing at his 18th birthday party while sporting a striking mullet haircut. The image was subsequently used in a number of photoshopped images and memes, which put the teen’s face on everything from currency to a horse, and even a high-brow humorous picture of the Pythagorean theorem. The images went viral from there, with even a radio station making fun of the teen’s hairstyling.
Mosslmani alleged that the memes made him out to be “stupid” or “incredibly ugly.” While one judge rejected this claim, saying that the memes were only referencing the silliness of the haircut itself, these cases were ultimately settled outside of court.
Fair Use—Who Owns a Meme?
A motion to suppress. The incredible popularity of the game Fortnite was bound to attract attention, but few would have guessed it would be for its iconic “emotes,” which show characters dancing and striking silly poses. The game’s creator, Epic, is estimated to have made over a billion dollars from in-game purchases over the course of a year, making it a huge financial success. The problem is that many of those emotes allegedly come from other internet personalities, several of whom have sued Epic after not seeing a cent for their dance moves.
Russell Horning, known more famously as “Backpack Kid,” sued the company for using a dance called “The Floss,” while Alfonso Ribeiro, who played the character Carlton on TV show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, sued for use of (what else?) a dance called “The Carlton.” Other suits followed as well. The lawsuits have stalled, mostly due to lingering legal questions about what, exactly, can be copyrighted and how the appropriate procedures unfold.
Grumpy Cat. Few memes are as widely known as that of Grumpy Cat, whose look of contempt at the world graced the internet until it’s passing away in May of last year. Over the years, Grumpy Cat’s fame not only spawned numerous memes but also got the cat gigs with public appearances and a lot of merchandise sales. The meme was so widely known that even President Obama made a reference to the cat at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
What most people don’t know is that the cat’s owners monetized its image by starting a company, Grumpy Cat Limited. This company is estimated to have made millions from merchandise and book sales. In 2018, Grumpy Cat Limited sued Grenade Beverage for using the cat’s iconic image to market its new cappuccino drink (called, of course, Grumpy Cat Grumppuccino) without permission. The company won, and the lawsuit was thought to be one of the first to set the stage for seeking damages due to copyright and licensing issues when it comes to memes.
What’s Important to Know About Meme Cases
Though classic cases, these are probably not the first meme-related lawsuits—and they certainly will not be the last. The law is still playing a game of “catch up” when it comes to creative licenses, privacy, and the fast-and-free distribution of the internet. There are many reasons to sue someone, and these get some creative interpretations with each new medium.
What might surprise people is that these lawsuits have oftentimes resulted in settlements. In other words, alleged victims received compensation as a result of their likeness or work going viral. In most of these cases, a settlement was reached without the case even going to court.