Making sense of copyright: memes

I mixed up the Team-based Learning Ad campaign this year: did it earlier in the semester, made it more personal for students (they chose what they saw as the most important issues –  with no exceptions for controversial subjects), and made what I thought was a much simpler rubric, BUT I included copyright and fair use in the criteria.  Easy peasy; right?

We had misunderstanding on the meaning of “meme.”  To students if seems a meme is always a joke and free from individual ownership.  SO, I tracked down Mark Swails, the Eng. Dept Library Liaison and copyright guru.  First thing he did was straighten me out on some terms

  • Fair use = a legal defense or an argument in court
  • Creative Commons = a type of license which cedes some rights to the user – but be careful, there are different types of licenses which allow different things.
  • Open source = coding or how something is made is shared (and tinkering is invited(?))
  • DMCA = a take-down notice

Copyright does matter for memes – in fact JCCC took down an unflattering meme because it used an image owned by the school.  I have no idea what the content of that meme was, but of course I’m curious.   A big take-away from our conversation was that all images on the interweb are owned by someone.  Some people however fail to police their copyright.

That’s why even though some businesses have co-opted success kid for their ads, the Frye meme (owned by Cartoon Network) would require shelling out bucks.  Here’s where Mark used his Swiss cheese analogy – or the filters argument.  Swiss cheese is full of holes and not good protection, but the more layers you have the more coverage you get.  Eventually a sufficiently thick block of cheese can stop bullets.

Fair-use in educational settings says as long as we don’t impinge on the market, and it’s trans-formative, and less than 10% of the original work has been used (that/these may be a JCCC guideline(s) rather than law), you are more or less OK, unless the owner of copyright decides to sue. Then it comes down to who has the best lawyers. Note: I have an added layer o’cheese/filter by linking to an image elsewhere on the web from someone else at .  If laws were broken, it wasn’t by me.

Additional facts.  Unless data is owned by the US government, anything before 1923 is in the public domain – and this may have something directly to do with Disney and “Steamboat Mickey” or Fantasia.  My notes fail me at times – and here they suck.

He also gave tips on finding public domain images and music by going to