Earning an honest living is what Instagram user “Ben” (the pseudonym assigned to him by MarketWatch) claims to have been doing when he was taking in approximately $4,000 per month by operating and curating several accounts containing memes originally created by third parties. (For those who have somehow managed to avoid this ubiquitous Internet phenomenon, Wikipedia describes a meme as a “piece of media that spreads, often . . . for humorous purposes, from person to person via the Internet.” The article at this link contains some examples.)
Then, in early August 2019, Instagram changed course, attempting to smooth things over with the increasingly influential meme community by announcing its intention to hire a strategic-partnerships manager dedicated to meme accounts—a “meme liaison” of sorts.
Instagram’s head of news and publishing partnerships, Lila King, seems to appreciate the merits of this argument, telling The Atlantic that “curation is a kind of creation.” That might be true, but—as Slate points out—“whether that holds up under copyright law is up for debate.”
The copyright questions raised by meme accounts are many and varied, and considerations such as fair use and implied license could come into play. It is also worth noting that many of the memes that appear on meme accounts are themselves derived from preexisting copyrighted content, such as film stills and photographs. In other words, as much as Ben may have appropriated memes created by third parties to populate his meme account, those third-party creators themselves also depend on content owned by others.
Exploration of these issues will have to wait for another post, but rest assured that we will be keeping a close eye on this developing story.