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What Do You Meme? TFW Commercial Use Outweighs Fair Use
Thursday, June 20, 2024

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s copyright infringement decision, finding that a congressional reelection campaign’s use of a popular meme to solicit donations was commercial in nature and therefore not fair use. Laney Griner v. King for Congress, Case No. 22-3623 (8th Cir. June 7, 2024) (Benton, Erickson, Kobes JJ.)

Laney Griner owns the copyright for the popular meme “Success Kid,” which is a photograph of then 11-month-old Sam Griner with his hand in a fist clenching sand at the beach.

Griner took the photograph in 2007. The photograph went on to become one of the first viral memes, with billions of internet users spreading the image with a variety of captions. Griner registered the copyright of the Success Kid meme in 2012 and has since licensed that photograph to many companies, including Virgin Mobile, Vitamin Water, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, for commercial use.

Steven King served as a congressional representative from Iowa from 2003 to 2021. During his 2020 reelection campaign, the King for Congress Committee, which supported the congressional campaign, posted the meme on its website, Facebook and Twitter in an effort to seek donations:

After requesting the removal of the posts to no avail, Griner filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement and violation of Sam’s privacy. The jury found that neither the committee nor the congressman violated Sam’s privacy, but it did find that the committee (but not the congressman) had “innocently” infringed Griner’s copyright. The jury awarded $750 in damages, which is the statutory minimum. The committee appealed.

The committee argued that its use of the meme was fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Under the Copyright Act, four factors define fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

The Eighth Circuit found that the first factor weighed against the committee since the post clearly used the meme to call for donations and was undoubtedly commercial in nature. The commercial nature of the use voided the committee’s argument that the meme had been used millions, if not billions, of times without permission by users across the internet. Likewise, the “transformative elements” that the committee added (original text) were not persuasive enough to overcome this commercial nature. The Court found that the third factor also weighed against the committee since the “most substantial part of the work,” the “Success Kid himself,” was used in the committee’s post. The Court found that the fourth factor weighed in neither party’s favor, despite the fact that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the meme’s association with Congressman King would potentially drive away at least some would-be licensees.

The Eighth Circuit therefore affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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