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Rihanna, Lupita and a Netflix movie born on Tumblr

What started as a social media post is set to be a Netflix hit, but who gets the credit when memes turn into money?

When the internet influences mainstream cinema it usually ends up like the sure-to-be-awful The Emoji Movie or Spike Jonze’s chatbot romance Her, a dramatic reimagining of what it would be like to fall in love with Smarterchild from MSN Messenger. The latest example is coming after a historic deal took place at Cannes Film Festival.

Netflix is now developing a movie inspired by a viral tweet. It all started at the Miu Miu show at Paris Fashion Week 2014. On the front row sat Margot Robbie, cross-legged and draped in a bright red coat, Rihanna wearing shades inside (like all cool people do), and Lupita Nyong’o rocking a nerdy office wear look. During and after the show Rihanna and Nyong’o emerged as a #couplegoals double act. The pair barely left each other’s side, beaming at each other throughout the event. And one image of the pair watching the runway led fans to think of a plot featuring the new best friends as scammers in a stylist heist film referred to as Cashing In.

As Kateria, aka @1800SADGAL, tweeted: “Rihanna looks like she scams rich white men and Lupita is the computer smart best friend that helps plan the scans(sic),” she probably didn’t think it would catch the attention of the 12 Years a Slave star. However, once it did it set the wheels in motion for social media’s biggest achievement since we almost stopped Kony in 2012. Nyong’o said she was down, Rihanna confirmed she was in, filmmaker Ava Duvernay chimed in and Issa Rae announced she would like to write it by replying with a fast-typing cat gif.

While #BlackTwitter is hailing this move as evidence of their power and influence, upon closer inspection it really isn’t that simple. Many have been quick to highlight that a very similar post did the rounds on Tumblr shortly after the fashion show by Elizabitch Taylor, real name Roxy Macdonald, who was “annoyed” that the limelight had not fallen on her. In July 2014 she wrote: “They look like they’re in a heist movie with Rihanna as the tough-as-nails leader/master thief and Lupita as the genius computer hacker”.

Understandably if you inspire an idea which goes on to become a Netflix project involving some of the biggest names in showbusiness and television right now – you’d want some of that money to trickle your way. But Rihanna and co didn’t co-sign Macdonald’s idea, they only saw Kateria’s Twitter post. Furthermore, on closer inspection, there is a post that pre-dates both of these on a now deleted account called fromhadeswithlove. “#They look like a group of thieves scoping out a target #rihanna is the cool con woman that plays people like a grandmaster #margot is the athletic safe cracker that can scale any surface #and Lupita is the hot nerd that can turn off every security system in a five-block radius,” read her version.

Social media is no stranger to queries about copyright and ownership. There have been many stories about people uploading images to Facebook or blogs and discovering they have been used in advertisements without permission. Similarly, the internet is not a safe space for original thoughts, it is a hotbed for plagiarism. Some of Twitter and Tumblr’s most popular accounts are retweets, reblogs and straight up rip offs from others, sometimes by smaller, accounts in an attempt to go viral and build a following. Most memes spread so quickly you can hardly ever trace it back to the original creator. Nevertheless, this repetition of ideas is what makes social media so powerful and confusing.

Behind the production of humorous tropes is an incredibly lucrative new territory that is still misunderstood. Take Danielle Bregoli, who turned all of your “how bow dah” posts into $50,000 per appearance. Her short appearance on Dr Phil should have been an embarrassment, but the 14-year-old cashed in, selling her own merchandise and appearing in rap videos overnight. Every comical dub of ‘Bad and Boujee’ pushed Migos further into our consciousness and high into the charts. #Saltbae’s restaurant career is booming. This year even Gucci decided to harness the power of memes for its #TFWGucci campaign. But when memes make it big it is hard to credit an individual, and while #BlackTwitter continues to shape culture they are yet to cash a collective cheque.

It’s always hard to gauge characters online. Yet from her most recent posts, fromhadeswithlove is a normal Oregonian girl, studying towards becoming a medical professional. Nothing about her online presence suggests she is looking for a Hollywood lifestyle or attention, and her manner is rather shy even via instant message. Seemingly bewildered by the “crazy” trajectory of the post she made many years ago she explains she only ever wanted it to be a funny joke for her followers. And as for the spinoff posts receiving all of the credit she says “it’s kind of shitty but I don’t think there’s really much to be done about it”. So perhaps in the pursuit of credit in the digital age it will boil down to who cares enough to fight for recognition.

“When memes make it big it is hard to credit an individual, and while #BlackTwitter continues to shape culture they are yet to cash a collective cheque”

In the days following the announcement, Kateria repeatedly released statements alleging that she didn’t steal the idea but that her and Macdonald had just arrived at the same conclusion by looking at the photo. Nevertheless, she was prepared to give Macdonald full credit. But what rights would these women have if the situation were a lot less amicable? And to what extent are they entitled to any official credit from Netflix and the filmmakers. There is not much precedent set for these kinds of things in the legal world says Anna Ward, a lawyer who specialises in cases regarding intellectual property. She believes it wouldn’t be an easy feat to protect your ideas online.

“Copyright protects the expression of an idea, but it really depends on exactly what has been copied,” she explains. “There is no such thing as a format right and there is no script in this instance. They’ve just cast people based on this idea. Obviously, since the initial post, it has gone viral and lots of people have talked about it and contributed ideas, like storyboards and illustrations – that might raise interesting questions.”

As neither of the other girls are currently available for comment – Kateria is hoping to give exclusive televised interviews to Ellen DeGeneres (she is yet to be contacted by the show), and Macdonald is not yet ready to answer questions – we cannot confirm whether they have been contacted by the filmmakers involved. But their Twitter posts and our brief exchange strongly suggests the idea has been developed without consulting them.

With social media being such a powerful tool for sharing ideas and given that it has grown to become a worldwide pool of creative minds, there is no doubt cases like this will begin to set a precedent. The implications go as far as Hollywood, but in day-to-day life for creatives, there is a risk in sharing your ideas and work online to display your talents. While your social media account may get you noticed, you open yourself up to plagiarism. In essence, a heist film starring Rihanna and Nyong’o might be a meme come true, but the biggest crime is that the brains behind the concept aren’t actually entitled to a cent.