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Is it illegal to make a meme of someone?

is it illegal to make a meme of someone

Memes are mainstream and a predominant part of the 21st century; however, they were popularized earlier in the 1990s. Technology and the media have since significantly impacted and transmuted our entire perception of interaction and privacy. Over the years, memes have grown to be the epicenter of numerous legal battles. Blithe as they may seem, there still stands a fine line between entertainment and infringement of the law. So, if you ever find yourself itching to send that funny meme you just created to a coworker, here is what you should understand: memes are not illegal, but how you create, showcase, reproduce and distribute them can potentially hold grave statutory ramifications. The pressing question regarding the legality of memes is determining whether or not you violate any laws by creating them. If we are cutting to the chase, there are no particular criteria generated to settle this argument; however, there are a few measures you could take into account to avoid a possible lawsuit. These are:


Fair use

Typically, memes are humorously creative and artistic, and just like any work of art, they too maintain copyrights protection. In legal terms, memes do have fair use; that is, who owns the meme? Being that most memes are derivative work, the rights of the copyright owner are not absolute. What does this mean? Memes are mostly generated from pre-existing artistic creation; this means that exclusive ownership of a meme is a slippery slope unless one has independently developed the image behind the meme. When creating a meme, you would want to counter check whether all the content is yours; this includes the image and words. Arguably, by manipulating the character’s face enough in the meme to an acceptable legal standard, one can dodge the proprietorship violation bullet. However, this entirely discredits the point of creating the picture meme.

In most countries, it is against law to use copyrighted images, especially if they are not public records. In simpler words, unauthorized modifying of personal photos without the subject’s consent to generate a meme is a crime, and they are eligible to sue- this does not necessarily mean that you are completely shut down from making memes. The legal copyrights doctrine encompasses a few exceptions. The ownership law accommodates the use of patent images and pictures in accordance to four fractions—first, the function of its use, then the amount of work to be used. Copyrights prongs further fractionated into the description of the copyrighted work and its effect on the market for or the value of the work.


Invasion of privacy

Technology and the internet at large have blurred the lines of privacy. Pictures are meant to capture intimate and meaningful moments in one’s life; however, these moments may not hold the same significance once put out to the public. The modern-day society snaps away at every turn, and being a diplomatic and expressive generation, one can easily fall victim to negative commentary and internet trolls. It is, therefore, relatively easy for someone to go viral, especially in a negative light. Creating a meme of someone’s personal photos can be deemed an invasion of privacy, especially when you lack the authorization to photograph them, publish, modify or distribute those images.

In most scenarios, the meme creator and their subject will have disputing thoughts on the meme’s significance to their interests. Individuals who are not public personalities highly uphold their right to privacy; turning them into overnight internet sensations can cause them great emotional distress. On the other hand, being thrown into the limelight incidentally could potentially change someone’s life permanently. As such, legal practitioners strongly advise keeping off image-based memes, especially when the face of the meme is not you. There will be instances where both you and your subject have a conflict of interest, and they will want their picture removed. In such a case, it is best to accommodate that possibility,  lest they serve you with a cease-and-desist letter over the meme.



Memes are characterized by being image-based texts. The text one chooses to use in their meme needs to hold factual grounding, especially when tied down to an individual or organization. Putting out malicious commentary or falsified statements under the subject’s picture helps create wrong impressions and misinformed perceptions of who they are and what they stand for. Defamation of an individual or corporate is a plausible cause for a legal lawsuit.

Defamation is perceived as a civil wrong in a court of law punishable by compensation. So, when does a meme creator cross this line? By damaging someone’s reputation through false statements and publication of these statements to a third party, in this case, your platform. In addition to that, fault amounting to at least negligence or harm caused to the defamed persons through slander or libel could also unravel into a defamation and personal injury lawsuit. Defamation of the subject may be a tort by legal standards, but it still can build a strong suit against you leaving your subject eligible for damages compensation.

Determining the legality of creating derivative memes is not a clear-cut question; it all comes down to a mutual understanding between the creator and the subject and your country’s laws. Memes can be light-hearted and funny, but then again, it is crucial to keep in mind that the images used in them belong to real people. Many creators tend to overlook that those are actual people behind those images and how they might react to going viral. It is essentially up to you, as a creator, to carry out background research, but most importantly, find the most humane possible way to put your message across. If your subject asks you to take down their picture, name, or information, you should consider doing so. Legal battles over memes are not unheard of, many suing over fair use, defamation, or intrusion of their privacy. So, before putting out that funny meme you just created, ensure you have at least tried to cover all aspects of a possible lawsuit.

For more issues about online legality, see our category on internet law

One Response

  1. I took a movie poster image on internet and added a name in the news to it. Nothing bad against either person was said but the current news story goes along with the poster. Is it okay to do so use the names in the news and the actor in the film? No money is being made by me off of the altering of movie poster image. Thanks!

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