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$117,000 reason to rethink posting memes

Anastasia Santoreneos
·3-min read
Memes can attract a $117,000 fine. Source: Getty
Memes can attract a $117,000 fine. Source: Getty

We all love to post relatable memes on our Facebook pages or forward them on to our mates privately, especially when we need a little humour to get through tough times.

But the nature of memes is that they are images repeatedly posted with different short text, and it’s this characteristic that can land you in hot water, according to University of New South Wales law professor Alexandra George.

“If somebody else owns the copyright, and you don’t have permission from the copyright holder, then you might find that you are in breach of copyright law,” George said.

And, there are significant penalties for copyright infringement in Australia: individuals can be fined up to $117,000, and corporations can be fined a whopping $585,000.

Here’s why memes could infringe copyright

Copyright law provides exclusive rights to the copyright owner to control ways in which their material is used by others.

It happens automatically when material is created, and means that others can’t reproduce the work, communicate the work to the public, make an adaption of the work, perform it in public or broadcast it to the public.

Memes therefore might infringe copyright if they are reproducing copyright-protected photographs, George said.

“Copyright protects photographs as ‘artistic works’, which memes mostly are. When a photograph is reproduced without permission, it is likely to be infringing copyright, and in Australia, there are not very many exceptions to that,” George said.

“Where somebody has taken someone’s photo, modified it by adding text to it or making a comment on, and posted it on the internet, it’s quite intentional use.”

And you could be infringing laws outside of Australia too, George said: “In an internet-connected world, where memes spread fast …it’s quite likely you’re infringing somewhere.”

Are there any exceptions to this?

In some instances, ‘fair dealing’ is an exception to copyright infringement, whereby people may use the work for research, the news, criticism, review, parody or satire.

According to George, it remains to be seen whether memes could fall under any of those categories.

“Fair dealing means you need to have used it in a way that is fair, which generally means not ripping off the whole thing. It’s difficult with photographs because you’d usually use the whole photograph [for a meme], otherwise, it doesn’t make sense,” she said.

“There are a lot of rules about when something is considered to be fair dealing, and if you managed to fit in under those rules, then you’re okay, but you don’t know that until you’re being sued, and you get to court, and the judge decides.

What can I do to stay on the safe side?

Get permission to post the work before you do it, George said.

“If they don’t want to risk infringing copyright, people should get permission from the copyright holder of photographs before they create memes using those pictures,” George said.

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