Pin It
US meme law
Illustration Marianne Wilson

Why a meme could soon cost you $30,000

Introducing America’s new ‘anti-meme’ law

Remember the simple days? When posting a bad meme only cost you a few followers? Soon, it might cost you up to $30,000 (so roughly £23,328)... that is, if you live in America and if you accidentally rip off someone else’s image.

Last week, the US House of Representatives voted “yes” on a measure to open a new small claims channel that would allow artists, photographers and creatives to file for copyright infringement on images that they have produced, which have then been used without their permission. 

Catchily titled the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act, but quickly becoming known as the “anti-meme” law, the new legislation has to pass through Senate before it is fully passed. If that happens, you’ll need to be a lot more careful about what you share online. Here's what you need to know...

WHY DIDN’T THIS EXIST BEFORE?

Well, actually, you can already sue for copyright infringement if your image is misappropriated. However, the cost of taking legal action in America often deters people, because it could outweigh the damages that you would be rewarded if you won. 

This new Act, CASE, would make it more affordable for creators to take action because it would lead to the setting up of a specific Copyright Claims Board within the United States Copyright Office, essentially a small claims court who would deal with these cases at a lower cost, instead of requiring those filing suits to take their case to Federal Court. 

There is also a similar law in Europe, that was passed last year. Back in September 2018, the EU Copyright Directive was passed, with Article 13 technically requiring YouTube and Twitter to automatically filter out any copyrighted content. Some people worried that this would bring an end to memes and parody music videos – so like, most of what we love about the internet – but thankfully, over a year later, that seems not to have happened.

WHY WOULD WE NEED THIS “ANTI-MEME” LAW?

To protect artists who need to own their work to make a livelihood, and give them control of where their images are shared. Experts claim that while the law could be used for images reappropriated in memes, it’s pretty unlikely – there’s a four-factor test to see if something infringes copyright, including whether harm is caused, whether the work has been transformed by a new element, whether the use affects the market value of the work, and the context – like, is it being used for profit? 

It’s rare that a meme would meet all of these criteria, but memes and appropriated images often travel further than Instagram or Tumblr. Take the case of Amanda Kirk, an artist whose cute little “nap all day, sleep all night, party never” sloth illustration got turned into T-shirts that were sold all over Redbubble without her permission. The new law would be useful in that it would protect someone like her, without costing her a bucketload to take action.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE LAW?

Well, other than sucking the fun out of our Instagram experience, and potentially threatening to take away the only thing that gets us through a Wednesday morning (like Area 51 and I'm Baby memes) critics worry that the new legislation might be taken advantage of by “copyright trolls”. A Gizmodo report quotes Meredith Rose, Policy Counsel for the open internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, expressing concern that regular people who share images and aren’t aware of the rules might get targeted. 

However, says Rose, Senate probably won’t even pass the bill. “We’ve been hearing more concerns from Senate side and are working to see if we can craft some version of this bill that doesn’t create the knock-on effects.”

For now, then, your memes might be safe.