What’s In a Meme? A Possible Lawsuit

By: Matthew H. Fry, Esquire

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Memes are everywhere on social media.  Sometimes funny, sometimes mean, but almost always using a picture with a title or statement taken out of context.  So, while most memes are harmless, lawsuits have arisen over certain memes involving taking either a person’s image or likeness and either putting them in a bad light or using it for advertisements or marketing without permission.

Generally, you cannot take someone’s image or likeness and use it for advertising purposes.  You also cannot take someone’s image and place them in a “false light,” suggesting something negative about that person.  However, the images that people post to the public all over social media seem to be fair game these days for meme makers, and not much has been done about it, until recently.  A few lawsuits have been filed, but many resolved with settlements before any legal rulings.  Whether they will be successful under the law is still a gray area.   

One lawsuit involved the mother of a young girl who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome.  A distasteful meme was allegedly disseminated by Dancing with the Stars professional Valentin Chmerkovskiy, the photographer, and CBS Corp. The mother alleged that the defendants caused a distasteful meme of her daughter to go viral showing a picture of her daughter having what appears to be a “sugary” drink at a minor league baseball game.  The caption stated “Letting your kid become obese should be considered child abuse.”

The family found the picture on Chmerkovskiy’s Facebook page and asked it to be removed. When he refused to remove the distasteful meme, the family sued the photographer, CBS News, and Chmerkovsky over the meme in a lawsuit claiming that the posting it was “intentional, deliberate, and malicious.”

The photographer and CBS eventually settled with the family, so it is unknown whether there would ultimately be legal merit to their claims.  However, if someone does appropriate an image of you, or has taken your photos and used them to unfairly mock the persons in the photos or use those photos for profit, you may have a claim. 

The Law Firm of DiOrio & Sereni, LLP is a full-service law firm in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We strive to helppeople,businesses and institutions throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania solve legal problems – and even prevent legal problems before they occur.  To learn more about the full range of our specific practice areas, please visit www.dioriosereni.com or contact Matthew H. Fry, Esquire at 610-565-5700 or at [email protected].


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