Monetizing Internet Memes & Copyright Law

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When our Intellectual Property/Arts & Entertainment team presents at one of its legal workshops (and we typically do these for various arts groups along the Front Range), sometimes we tell the story of  Carlos Ramirez, the creator of the Trollface meme.

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In 2008, Carlos was procrastinating on a college term paper and drew a face in MS Paint to post on an online message board. People seemed to like it.

In 2010, Carlos registered his drawing with the U.S. Copyright Office, and thereafter successfully monetized his work in a wide variety of ways. You can read more about Carlos’s fascinating tale here. In short, as of mid-2015 Carlos had made over $100,000 through various exploitations of the Trollface (both merchandise licensing, as well as settlements under claims of copyright infringement he brought against various parties).

We like to share Carlos’s story at our workshops because it illustrates how beneficial copyright laws can be to professional artists and even lucky doodlers, like Carlos. If you create an image that becomes a viral meme, are savvy enough to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office, and put in the time to actively market, license and police the use of your work, you too could make six figures! Or so we say.

However, maybe Carlos and his Trollface meme lucked out during the “OH! The Internet Is a Thing!” stage, which appears to have ended several years ago now.  The Atlantic just published a story about how making money off Internet memes is becoming harder and harder. The pace of online trends and the time frame for what people think is funny (or at least, funny enough to spend some money on) is too fast to keep up with. “It feels like the internet is all moving a lot quicker.” “Today, memes come and go sometimes faster than T-shirts can be printed, and there’s nothing more mortifying than donning a T-shirt with a dated phrase.”

As attorneys, we think we will probably still teach our workshop attendees about Carlos and Trollface, because it’s a funny and unusual story, and helps people learn about how they can reap real legal benefits if they know how to make copyright law work for them. We just may no longer promise the potential for them to make riches off their memes!

If you have questions about copyright law or operating an e-commerce business, contact our Intellectual Property or Small Business team today.

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