Elon Musk – the Tesla CEO, SpaceX founder and soon-to-be Saturday Night Live host – is an open admirer of memes.
“Whoever controls the memes controls the universe,” tweeted Mr. Musk last summer. He has called the visual jokes “modern art” and shares them regularly on Twitter, where he has more than 52 million followers.
Mr. Musk doesn’t make a lot of memes himself. Instead, he finds them online and has others send them their favorites. Sometimes he republishes his favorites without naming their origins.
This practice is not uncommon. Lots of people on the internet share other people’s memes without giving credit to the creators, in part because it can be difficult to spot credit. Memes are based on reinterpretations of joke formats, and it’s not always clear where they start.
But the fact that Elon Musk frequently steals memes has essentially become a meme in itself. And it’s not always felt to be very funny.
For comedians and content creators, memes are valuable intellectual property. Nick Noerdlinger, 23, executive director of the Meme Insider website, noted that granting or denying credit has business implications. “Because the internet is so big and wide, the only thing that draws people back to someone who can ultimately make a living on the platform is credit,” he said. “In the creative economy, even without credit, the creators would not be able to make money, build a brand around them, and appeal to an audience.
In the past few years, viral meme accounts that have seen great success and monetization by republishing other developers’ work without credit or payment have met with backlash. In 2019, a conversation about this issue was sparked by a campaign against an Instagram account operated by Jerry Media. It helped change the standards that brands and top influencers adhere to today.
Quinn Heraty, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property law, found that rapper Ludacris was sued by the LittleThings website in 2017 for posting an illustration from the website on his Instagram without acknowledging it. (The parties have reached an agreement.)
Ms. Heraty said that without “transformative use” there could be a case for copyright infringement. “If he brushes the picture off the picture and publishes it without reference to the original creator, it shows willpower,” she said of Mr. Musk.
Generally, when a brand uses a meme for marketing purposes, it asks permission to share the image and credits the owner. In many cases, the brand also pays off. One exception seems to be Mr Musk, who is both a successful businessman and a freewheeling personal brand.
“It’s very difficult to talk about something like this without looking like you’re crazy about it,” said Patrick Monahan, 37, a comedian and podcast host whose meme was shared by Mr. Musk without appreciation. “Ultimately, this doesn’t steal a script or an entire song, but it’s the same spiritually. It’s just not cool. “
It may speak more to the simple fact that Mr Musk, who was briefly the richest man in the world according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index this year, has used Twitter to bolster his personality (and promote cryptocurrencies and stocks, including his own ).
Jamie Trufin, who runs a meme account called @DogeCoinDaddy, said he was disappointed when Mr. Musk posted one of his Doge memes with no credit in March.
“It kills your mood,” said the 24-year-old Trufin. “You work so hard making all of these memes. I could have got a few hundred followers from it, and it would have made the community fatter and happier. He got us all excited about Dogecoin, but he tore down meme pages and did them no credit which kills the fun. “(The price of Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency, has continued to rise, thanks in part to tweets from Mr. Musk.)
In January, Mr. Musk posted a meme about web domains created by Ben Howdle, 31, who has a tech meme account. Mr. Howdle was puzzled as to why someone with such great resources would share someone else’s work with no credit. “You would think if you were the richest person in the world, you wouldn’t have to massage your ego,” he said. (For what it’s worth, Mr. Musk is only the second richest now.)
Mr. Musk has been doing this for a while. In April 2020, he shared a meme created by a comedian with a photo of their dog, which some say Mr. Musk tried to pass it off as his own.
After being criticized in 2019 for sharing artwork on Twitter without credit, Mr. Musk first tweeted, “Always credit everyone.” Then he reversed course: “Nobody should ever be credited,” he wrote, suggesting that “any fool can find out in seconds who the artist was”.
Miles Klee, a 36-year-old Los Angeles writer, heard from a friend that a meme he made in April about vaccinated people enjoying a promiscuous summer had been republished by Mr. Musk. “Someone in my group chat said, ‘LOL, did everyone see Elon steal a meme that Miles made?'”
Mr. Klee is not angry with Mr. Musk, but found the behavior repulsive. “Of course he has his henchmen who are ready to defend what he does,” said Mr. Klee, “but for everyone else who is normal and has been on the Internet for a long time, it’s like:” Yes, that’s a wack Move.'”
Chas Steinbrugge, 19, a freshman who runs the @Trigomemetry meme account, is also the creator of Meme Citations, a website that shares the origins of memes in the Modern Language Association format.
“Personalities like Elon Musk don’t give credit, it hurts the creators,” he said. “He could create a situation where he encourages young meme creators and contributes to the community by tagging whoever created them or adding watermarks.”
Several people whose content was published by Mr. Musk have since asked for payment, be it in dollars, Teslas or Bitcoin. (Mr. Monahan said he was willing to accept “only $ 80,000”.)
Mr. Klee took a newer approach. “Can someone help me create and sell an NFT of a screenshot of Elon Musk posting a horny vaccine meme that I made?” he asked his followers on Twitter. Someone turned the tweet into an NFT that Mr. Klee could sell for $ 1,000 in Ethereum, a cryptocurrency.
Mr Musk, who received a comment on this article via email, responded with two uncredited memes: