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Corporate Use of Internet Memes Could Be Costly

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on November 27, 2012 5:02 AM

Internet memes -- those cute images, phrases, and videos that spread online -- seem like a great way to grab new customers' attention. Maybe your client's marketing department is already considering using a meme in its next advertising cycle.

But unless you're itching for an intellectual property fight, you may want to think twice before pursing that strategy.

Too often, marketing teams and in-house attorneys underestimate the value of intellectual property on the Internet. If you're one of those people, it could cost you.

Most memes originate from a given source, and that person owns the image or phrase that's being replicated around the Internet. Even if they don't officially register it as a trademark, they can still receive protection.

Other users can make fair use of the mark by creating their own versions, but as a company your client doesn't have the same right.

That's because if the meme is used for commercial gain, it could be considered infringement. Any legal action could cost a lot, based on how widespread your use of the meme is.

That doesn't mean you can't take advantage of the power of the meme. It just means you have to be more careful about how you do it.

Using popular memes like LOL Cats or Double Rainbow isn't going to work, but a company can create its own meme for marketing purposes.

Just look at the popularity of the Old Spice Guy.

If your client does want to use a meme for marketing, it might also be possible to reach out to its originator and ask for permission to use the meme. So long as you leave a paper trail in case of a later disagreement, that is.

Internet memes have shown that the Web is a powerful tool for spreading messages to consumers. If your client is planning to get in on that network, just make sure it's not unfairly taking advantage of someone else's ideas.

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