Whether you're a business owner or a marketing professional, it's important to be aware of the legal implications surrounding the use of memes, images, and other third-party content in your marketing efforts. Memes are everywhere on social media and most of us share them personally with impunity. But the rules are different when it comes to commercial use, and a misstep could land you or a client in court.
A recent string of examples involving the popular Instagram account, @dudewithsign, highlights the potential risks and consequences of copyright infringement.
The account features Seth Phillips holding up signs with humorous phrases in various public places, which has led to a following of at least 8 million and partnerships with major brands. Odds are, you've seen at least one of his photos since his first post in 2019. The pop-culture reference site KnowYourMeme.com has an entry for the uninitiated.
Unfortunately, some companies have found themselves facing lawsuits after using the character and images from @dudewithsign without permission. Brands such as Avid, RQ Insurance, JEM Organics, BruMate, and Snak Club all posted edited versions of the Dude With Sign meme.
An exhibit from the lawsuit against JEM Organics
In their court filings, FJerry LLC (the company that operates @dudewithsign) alleged that altering and using the posts for commercial purposes violated their copyright, falsely implied endorsement, and infringed Phillips' right of publicity. Although most of these lawsuits have been voluntarily dismissed (likely due to settlement), the offending companies almost certainly incurred some unexpected legal expenses. And there is no way to know how many other companies received Cease & Desist letters (and likely had to hire an attorney to respond) for similar behavior.
This cautionary tale serves as a reminder for businesses of all sizes and creative professionals to be mindful of copyright law and the potential consequences of using unauthorized content in advertising efforts. It's important to ensure that you have the proper clearances and permissions before incorporating any content from other sources in your marketing campaigns, including memes.
Be attentive and diligent when it comes to using content that you didn't create. Being cautious with your social media marketing and obtaining the necessary permissions can save your business from unnecessary legal entanglements and potential damage to your reputation. Stick with engaging and legally-compliant content that helps your businesses thrive.