Courts are playing catch-up with the Internet when it comes to social media content and its ownership.
In one recent case, BET Television went to court with a superfan of its show “The Game” in a dispute over who retained the ownership of “likes” on a Facebook page dedicated to the show. A court initially ruled that page “likes” are not a tangible business asset, but are intangible benefits easily revoked by a user simply clicking “unlike.” The superfan appealed, and the case is now in mediation.
But what about the general idea behind, or the form of, a social media posting? Think of it like that old comic standby, the knock-knock Joke. If a writer composes the world’s funniest knock-knock Joke, can the originator of the knock-knock Joke formula make a legal claim of ownership of his shtick?
This example relates to a series of videos made by YouTubers The Fine Brothers, who specialize in a video form called “react to” — often involving older folks doing things on the web and reacting accordingly. Think, “Elders Play Grand Theft Auto V.”
Recognizing the success of their video formula, the Fine Brothers decided to monetize the “react to” format by trademarking it and then allowing (for a fee) other YouTubers to make “official” react to videos. This one never made it to a courtroom, because the Internet Court of Public Opinion passed swift judgment: The Fine Brothers dropped their licensing plan, but only after 300,000 YouTube subscribers dropped their channel first.
So who owns that “dank meme” you created for your favorite political candidate, the one that’s now gone viral and is featured on the candidate’s own Facebook page? NewsWorks’ social media strategist Amy Quinn and our Dave Heller chew it over.