Memes are shared widely, but what does that mean for copyrights? The New York Times recently reported on one case.
According to the article, Laney Griner, the mother of a boy whose baby picture on the beach spread online as the "Success Kid" meme, is demanding that Rep. Steve King stop using her son's copyrighted photo in his campaign ads.
"Ms. Griner, who registered a copyright on the image in 2012, said that she was not averse to the meme being used in political messages by either Republicans or Democrats, but "it would have to be the right message."" In this case, she fears that her son's image will become associated with racist comments that the congressman has made.
In the case of any photograph, the original photographer owns the copyright unless they have legally made it more widely available through choosing a Creative Commons License.
Although many images that end up as memes are fully copyrighted, most people like Ms. Griner know that it's nearly impossible to control their spread once they go viral. Still, a copyright holder has the right to take legal action against anyone using their image without permission--whether or not they choose to do so is just a question of priorities.
If you want to use a viral meme image in your classroom or for an assignment, it's good to understand that the image may be copyrighted. However, using it in an educational context is usually allowable under the law.
Talk to librarian Ro McKernan if you have any questions about copyright and fair use.