Memes have become an increasingly more common blight on the world of advertising. Across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, memes have been used to promote business because they are popular and tend to get shared. Many times I have seen the Condescending Willy Wonka promoting businesses that you wouldn’t expect. I’ve seen countless SpongeBob memes promoting businesses of all kinds and Grumpy, Nyan and Keyboard Cat as well… Surely this means that it’s ok to use memes in your adverts? Well not really, and here’s why…
Memes and Copyright
Just because people use memes commercially doesn’t give them the right to. Actors can object to their image being used and certainly in almost every case companies will not like you using images that belong to them, regardless of how many memes exist. If you are using an image that you don’t have the expressed right to use, then you are in violation of their copyright. You can end up in serious trouble for using a character to promote your business when you haven’t secured the legal rights. There are many examples out there of times when people have used the intellectual property of others and had legal action taken against them for violation of international copyright law…
The best way to think about it is to think about if someone took a picture of you and used that image to represent their company or sell their products. This could be a company that you might not want to be associated with. How would you feel, knowing your image was used in this way? Let’s say the business using your likeness or image was using it to sell a product that directly conflicted with your beliefs, how would you react? Most ordinary people will not take legal action for damages, however many businesses have. Would you feel safe using Mickey Mouse to promote your business, knowing how seriously Disney takes copyright? It wouldn’t be sensible.
In 2009, a game called Scribblenauts was released on the Nintendo DS, this game featured the use of Nyan Cat and Keyboard cat without the permission of the owners. Charlie Schmidt and Christopher Orlando Torres sued Warner Brothers for the illegal use of their intellectual property. Grumpy Cat was used to promote Grenade Beverages without permission and the cat’s owners won half a million pounds in the following legal battle.
When you consider the size of these corporations, this is terrifying. The damage being sued can do to a small company is immense so we could never advise using a meme to promote ones business.
When Does Copyright End?
If we were to look at the Willy Wonka Meme, I have seen it used time and time again by businesses over Facebook, most of which have mysteriously disappeared, the condescending Wonka meme has been used in tonnes of marketing ads, and is definitely a popular one. Use of this image however is a breach of copyright and can end up with you facing legal action.
Let’s analyze the copyright status of the meme. For all works that have been created but not published or registered before January 1st 1978, the Copyright term will last for the life of the author and then 70 years on top of that. There is no case where any copyrighted work will expire before December 31st 2002. For works published before December 2002 the copyright term will unfortunately not expire before December 31st 2047… A work created before 1978 which is still in the original or renewal term of copyright will have the term extended by 95 years after the date on which their copyright term was secured. This information can be found on the U.S. Copyright office website here…
So how does this affect our condescending Wonka meme? Charlie and the Chocolate factory was produced in 1964 by Ronald Dahl, who passed away in 1990. This means that the copyrights and ownerships of his intellectual property will expire in 2060. This includes his works and the characters created.
We are not however looking at his written work. We have to look at the film: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, owned by AOL Time Warner, and copyrighted in 1971, which means that it will be under copyright for many years to come… So it’s not an image you will be able to legally use without consent from AOL Time Warner.
Images from this film if used commercially is highly risky, and I would even recommend against non commercial use of the images. There is some allowance for images being used with Fair Use, however, commercial and businesses are not allowed to use these images in this way as it is a violation of copyright law, and outside of fair use. If there is profit to be made, you will be in serious trouble!
So Why Do People Get Away With It?
Lots of companies violate copyright on a day to day basis. Most of the time, companies are unaware that other people are using their intellectual property or that their trademarks and copyrights are being infringed upon. This does not mean that they have no interest in protecting these things. Most businesses take pride in their image and branding and will not allow for a violation of their copyrights. Large companies will have legal teams that will protect their copyrights. Just because a company is unaware of you using images and footage to promote your business does not mean that they won’t come down hard on you if they find out you are using their intellectual property or copyrighted materials.
Many small companies that use other people’s copyrighted materials, trademarks and intellectual property to promote their businesses manage to slip through the net undetected, and are generally so small that no one ever notices. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take risks with copyright and at DragonTech we wouldn’t recommend it. As a prominent IT Company in the Chattanooga area, we have to ensure that the businesses we serve are protected, not just with software, but by ensuring advertising campaigns don’t take crazy and dangerous risks such as using crazy cats, orly owls and Willy Wonkas for self promotion.
So What Should We Do?
All business owners have a product to sell. You don’t need memes to sell products, and they can be detrimental to your business over time due to the way social media handles likes and dislikes. You could also end up crippling your social media presence if you meme a lot but that’s a whole other article.
There are a lot of free resources you can use to help sell products, royalty free music and images make it easy to make quick adverts on the cheap without a huge investment or risk. People are more likely to have an interest in your adverts if they relate to your business, and you don’t want people who are interested in Squidward rather than the power drill you photoshopped into his tentacles.
At the end of the day, it’s always best to avoid using memes to promote your business. It’s better not to take risks. Stay safe and advertise without taking risks with copyright. We hope this has been helpful!
Alex is the CEO of Fantasoft LLC. He is a marketing specialist and blog writer from the UK with experience working with a variety of different companies including law firms, construction companies, roofing specialists and restaurants.