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Does Copyright Law Protect Memes?

Since most of the images and photographs used in memes are protected by copyright, sharing them without authorisation is illegal.

Consuming memes on social media has remained popular throughout the years despite how quickly and nearly daily social media trends shift. Even those who stay away from social media and the Internet are nearly guaranteed to have come across humorous memes at some point, whether in marketing or print media. That’s because memes have a lot of potential for influencing opinions and creating a friendly atmosphere. Let us know more about how Copyright Law Protect Memes.

Memes are humorous photographic or audiovisual depictions made for amusement and enjoyment. They usually use pictures or video clips from the many forms of online media and are frequently based on irony, satire, parody, or simply plain humour. The meme culture industry prospers in the murky areas of intellectual property law, where invention and creativity can flourish unhindered by IP laws.

According to section 2(c) of the Copyright Act, 1957, “artistic works” include paintings, sculptures, drawings (including diagrams, maps, charts, or plans), engravings, photos, works of architecture, and works of artistic handicraft. Since most of the pictures and photographs used in memes are protected by copyright, sharing them without authorization is illegal.

Additionally, as stated in section 14(c) of the Act, the Copyright Law grants only permission to the right holders to perform or authorize someone to reproduce their copyrighted work. For instance, if a photo of Akshay Kumar is used in a meme and the photographer is the owner of the photo’s copyright, then both Akshay and the photographer would have image rights and photo copyright and could file a lawsuit for alleged infringement.

Memes are continually and swiftly traced on social media platforms and go viral quickly. However, the question here is whether or not it is allowed to copy someone else’s work (a meme). The Copyright Act of 1957 safeguards the legal rights of those who put a lot of effort, skill, and time into making a meme. The fact that the individual who created the meme is mostly unknown does not absolve or shield him from legal repercussions.

However, no legitimate case of copyright infringement involving a meme has been brought up. This is due to the legal doctrine of “fair use,” which steps into copyright protection holders.

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The Indian Copyright Act, 1957’s Section 54(1) defines fair use as “fair dealing with any work.” Fair use is a legitimate defence when copyright infringement would otherwise happen. The only person legally permitted to produce a meme is the copyright owner; memes posted on social media are regarded as derivative works. On the other hand, the owner’s copyrights are not unalterable and absolute.

In India, a creator must satisfy two requirements to claim the fair use defence: no intent to engage in business competition with the copyright holder; and (ii) the original photograph/image/video/etc. It must not be misused.

Market Substitution Test

The primary objective of a meme is to take a sarcastic or humorous view of anything involving a person, not to compete with the copyright holder, so the first criterion—often referred to as the market substitution test—is simple to pass.

Improper Usage

The second criterion deals with the idea of “improper usage,” a comprehensive concept that cannot be precisely defined but must be understood instead. Memes are often not considered inappropriate because they are meant to be amusing unless the right holder finds them blatantly offensive.

Although none is definitive, the Copyright Act identifies four factors that can be used to determine whether or not the use of copyright material is fair. The first of the two variables is the goal and kind of usage, and the second is the kind of copyrighted work. The third factor evaluates whether or not the portion utilised is significant concerning the full copyrighted work. The effect of the usage on the potential market for copyrighted work is the final factor to be considered. The last factor is that memes are typically only used for entertainment and are very infrequently used for business.

Do Memes Have Copyrights?

The first issue that requires attention is what category of intellectual property would a “meme” fit under. Memes are most likely capable of being protected as “artistic creations,” according to a reading of Section 2(c) of the Copyright Act, 1957 (“Act”). Original artistic works are protected by copyright under Section 13(1)(a) of the Act. As was previously said, making a meme often requires very little work. A meme may be made by anybody using an online image and some text to add to it. 

Does this qualify it as a unique work? Most likely not. In EBC v. DB Modak, the standard of originality is fully outlined. It is necessary for the output to involve a certain level of creative judgment and skill; it is not sufficient for it to be merely a product of labour and capital. In the case of a derivative work, there must be a significant and not insignificant difference between the original work and its later iteration. Consider the meme in the example below.

The meme uses a highly well-known design inspired by the music video for the song “Hotline Bling.” It is used to express acceptance of one item while expressing dislike for another. The amount of imagination and talent needed to create this meme is little. Apparently, merely adding words to an existing image does not satisfy the requirement for “originality.” In reality, the meme creator has likely violated the music video’s copyright. Therefore, the majority of widely used memes cannot be protected by copyright laws. Any meme requesting such protection must adhere to the requirements for originality.


As previously mentioned, memes often fall under the fair use doctrine’s security even when they have a minimal monetary value. While making memes for entertainment is acceptable, if they are utilized for profit or publicity, the appropriate permissions and licenses from the copyright holders must be obtained to avoid legal ramifications. Give credit where credit is due if you know who created a meme the next time you see one you want to share. In order to get more information about protection under copyright law, contact Vakilsearch.

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