You know who to credit for most of your sources of entertainment. Your favourite stand-up comedians probably write their own material, and your beloved authors are credited in the books, magazines, and blogs where their work is published.
But what about online memes?
Your coworker probably didn’t write the caption for that Willy Wonka meme she posted on Facebook, and your acquaintances from high school didn’t create the Harambe posts on their Instagram pages.
Are they plagiarists for reposting uncredited intellectual property?
In some forums, this is a black and white issue. Neglecting to cite sources or pretending someone else’s words are your own can get you suspended or expelled from an academic institution, but where art is concerned, the distinction between homage and theft is more subjective. Stand-up comedians accused of stealing jokes are sometimes ostracized, while the careers of others remain untouched. Perceived theft in popular music has led to some massive lawsuits, but rarely lasting damage to the bank account or fan following of the artists involved.
Ownership of memes is made more complicated by their status as Internet-based phenomena, where viral memes tend to build off of one another in a flurry of posts across various platforms. The end result is that each piece of meme content is seen as a single tile in a mosaic, rather than a stand-alone piece of art or memoranda.
When a post on Reddit is copied from someone else’s Tumblr page, and that user based their creation off of an anonymous post on a meme-generating site, the path to determining ownership can be too circuitous for anyone to bother following. The anonymous nature of the internet means we’ll often never know if that Wonka meme was captioned by a lonely thirteen-year-old or a popular Twitter user.
The idea that it matters who gets credit for creative content is tied to the modern concept of profiteering under capitalism. Before creative work held the (slim) potential to amass personal fortune, who got credit for the final product was a less costly consideration. Masters of the Renaissance had entire workshops contributing to a single piece, and scholars continue to debate if the writing attributed to Shakespeare could have possibly been the work of a single, brilliant mind.
With follower counts in the millions, these professional reposters have turned “hey, look at this funny thing I saw” into a business model that generates enough traffic to earn ad revenue.
In a perfect world, the online dissemination of meme content could represent a free artistic space where individual attribution is less important than the exchange of humorous or thought-provoking ideas.
But engagement with memes on social media doesn’t just come from anonymous and uncredited posts and reposts. Instead, many access this content from massively popular meme accounts that “curate” original content from online creatives. With follower counts in the millions, these professional reposters have turned “hey, look at this funny thing I saw” into a business model that generates enough traffic to earn ad revenue.
During a recent profile on ABC's Nightline, Elliot Tebele, the 25-year-old behind Instagram’s biggest meme account, @FuckJerry, is heralded as a “meme master”. In the glowing six minute piece, Tebele is lauded as someone who makes memes for a living, despite his account posting mostly unoriginal, uncredited material. While the FuckJerry crew declined to disclose to Nightline what they’re paid for sponsored content, they described it as “enough to be considered a serious player in this media business”.
Last year Josh Ostrovsky, the man behind similar Instagram account @TheFatJewish, was called out by the online creative community, including famous comedians like Patton Oswalt, for uncredited re-posting of memes and tweets. With this wave of criticism seemingly behind him, Ostrovsky continues to share aggregated content to his nine million followers (though original posters are more frequently credited) when he isn’t busy promoting his own brand of wine, White Girl Rosé.
Unlike other “serious players in the media business,” FuckJerry and TheFatJewish aren’t stymied by having to share their profits with the people who create the meme content they post, making them the capitalist leaders, or feudal lords, of the meme world, for now.