CULTURE & ARTS
09/05/2015 11:34 am ET

Getty Is Quietly Charging Bloggers For 'Socially Awkward Penguin' Meme

One of the Internet's favorite jokes belongs to the photo service.

Around the spring of 2009, some nerds began adding macro text to a photo of a penguin on the Internet. According to Know Your Meme, this became what's now known as the Socially Awkward Penguin meme -- a format for sharing two-line stories on cringeworthy social encounters

You've probably seen it on Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, Imgur, Tumblr, BuzzFeed or some other Internet culture-obsessed place. And Getty Images -- which owns the rights to the original penguin photo -- is apparently none too happy about that. If you run a blog, you might want to be careful about posting SAP.

In a written statement, Getty confirmed to HuffPost that it has "pursued and settled certain uses" of the photo "in instances where it has been used without a license." (Disclosure: The Huffington Post is a Getty subscriber.) One affected blog, however, wants to get the word out.

GetDigital editors explained in a post on the site this week how Getty had contacted them about a three-year-old post featuring the SAP meme. After a few written exchanges, the image service requested €785.40 (around $875) in license fees -- about twice what the blog says it would regularly cost for a publication its size to use the image for three years. They paid the hefty sum out of court and deleted the offending images, but Getty had one more request. GetDigital said the company forbade them from talking to others about the copyright issue or else risk official legal action.

"Apparently this method is very successful," the editors wrote, "but of course it will not work on us." In addition to sharing their experience, the editors created a new SAP meme for anyone to use. 

Getty clarified in another written statement that, in copyright situations, it usually requests specific details of the settlement to be kept confidential. The company referred HuffPost to image licensing information available freely on its website.

With the right Google search, the original image is easy to find. "An Adelie penguin struts its stuff" reads the caption for the photo, taken by now-80-year-old George F. Mobley for National Geographic. A handy "calculate price" button sits next to it -- GetDigital used this to estimate its dues -- with editorial fees ranging from a few hundred U.S. dollars to thousands. 

Internet memes, though, can pose sticky copyright questions. To whom does an image that's been recontextualized and rewritten a billion times, privately and publicly, really belong? Reuters does not seem to have pursued legal action against any of the many, many sites that posted the "McKayla Is Not Impressed" meme during the Summer 2012 Olympics. The production company behind the 2004 film "Downfall" filed a copyright claim in 2010 against all the YouTube videos repurposing a scene showing Hitler's rage. (Many of the videos remain online.) But later, the owners of two hugely famous memes -- Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat -- won a lawsuit against Warner Brothers in 2013, which used their images in a video game called Scribblenauts. (The meme creators were eventually paid.)

Getty represents more than 200,000 artists who, it points out in the statement, "are entitled to be paid" just as the owner of Keyboard Cat (RIP). And, as always, we can probably blame 4chan -- the cesspool of filth and depravity that created many early Internet memes, likely including SAP -- for starting this whole mess. But the reality of creative copyright is often hazy -- just ask Pharrell -- and it stands to reason that any and all conversation around the subject should be welcomed.

Also on HuffPost:

PHOTO GALLERY
30 Artist Names You Are Probably Pronouncing Wrong
CONVERSATIONS