Memes – How Unsuspecting People Become Internet Famous & the Legal Implications

Chances are you are familiar with some of the memes below. Have you ever wondered where those pictures actually came from? Some are of people who willingly posted their likeness on a social media site. Others are of normal people posting old photos on Facebook, not realizing that some random stranger was scouring the internet looking for funny photos to use for memes. Its totally expected to see celebrities turn into memes, but sometimes normal citizens become famous overnight. These now-famous faces even have meme names – “Scumbag Steve”, “Overly Attached Girlfriend”, “Bad Luck Brian”, “ERMAHGERD”, and “Success Kid”, to name a few.

success-kid    scumbag-steve  bad-luck-brianoverly-attched-gf  ehrmagerd.jpg

“Scumbag Steve”‘s real name is Blake Boston, and his own mother actually took the photo of him when he was 16 that has made him a meme sensation.

“Overly Attached Girlfriend” is actually a woman named Laina Morris. She had willingly posted her image as a spoof to Justin Bieber’s song “Boyfriend”.  She had no idea that her photo would become a meme that went viral over the internet. She now posts you tube videos and supposedly now earns a six figure income from her success.

“Bad Luck Brian” is really a guy named Kyle Craven, and that is his 7th grade yearbook photo. He posted it on Reddit and it instantly became popular. He now makes money from t-shirt sales of the famous pic.

“ERMAHGERD” is Maggie Goldenberger and was taken when she was 11 and playing dressup with her friends.  A Reddit user found it when going through Facebook and created the meme. Vanity Fair published an article about her in 2015.

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“Success Kid” is Sammy Griner, and the photo was taken by his mother on the beach when he was 11 months old. She then posted it on Flickr, where it went viral. Although he did not plan on becoming famous,  he used his internet fame to raise $100,000 for his father’s expensive dialysis treatments and kidney transplant. Virgin Media bought the rights to it to use it on a Billboard in the UK, and it was also used in a Vitamin Water commercial.

There are some people who’s image is turned into a meme and they use their fame to gain notoriety or money, but others are upset and try to sue to have the images taken down, but often unsuccessfully.

I am honestly horrified that there is even the slightest chance of an unflattering photo of myself from grade school (heck even yesterday!) floating around the web for someone to turn into a meme. For people that like to live a private life, this seems like a nightmare. Without choosing it, the people mentioned above were thrown into a situation they didn’t ask for and now loads of people know who they are.

There are arguments about whether memes are an example of free speech, or if they are considered a form of cyberbullying.One family did sue and won a case when an image of their son, who has Down Syndrome, was turned into a cruel meme. According to one law firm’s website (, certain circumstances can validate a meme lawsuit:

  1. Defamation
  2. Publication of Private Facts / Information
  3. False Light
  4. Invasion of Privacy
  5. Copyright Infringement
  6. Unauthorized Use of Property

More lawsuits have happened with memes. Photos posted to a person’s social media page are their property and using that image is copyright infringement.  But I guess if the meme is making money, it is easier for them to ride the wave and try to monetize from it than attempt to track down the person that stole the image. I do agree with people suing if the meme is cruel and unnecessary (as in the case above), or causes people to lose their job or mental/emotional distress.

The owners of the Grumpy Cat image have sued a coffee company over copyright infringement. Grenade Beverage had a licensing deal with the Grumpy Cat LLC but was selling unauthorized products with the brand image. The owners of Grumpy Cat own federal copyrights of his image and likeness.


It seems pretty easy these deals to steal someone else’s images from a site without asking for permission or give credit where credit is due. Copyright infringement is stealing. What do you think? Do you think it’s okay to use someone else’s photos for your own benefit? What if you were turned into a meme? Would you have fun with it or sue?




13 Regular People Behind Some Of The Most Famous Internet Memes On The Planet

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  1. adamsmea89 · ·

    That is a tough question! It seems like if your picture is used as meme in a funny and non offensive way, then there is no reason to be upset or to sue. I think that we are all aware that if you upload something to the internet it is there forever, even if you delete it later on. If there is a really unflattering picture of yourself that you do not find funny, then you shouldn’t have it on the internet because it is very possible that a friend with tag you in it, or share it and allow others to see it. On the other hand, if memes are created in a malicious manner (like the example you shared) then you should be able to sue.

  2. Memes are so powerful these days. I’m sure most of the people turned into memes don’t mind and laugh at their random fame – but if used for harmful purposes, memes can be the source of many headaches. The thing is, how much action, legal or not, can you actually take regarding memes? The example that comes to mind is the Harambe meme, which is literally still circling the Internet, over half a year after the gorilla was actually killed. People are still insincerely mourning Harambe, much to the annoyance of the zoo, whose director actually called for the endless barrage to stop, citing that the memes “[made] moving forward more difficult.” In the end, the zoo had to delete its Twitter account because they were being incessantly trolled. An unfortunate experience for the zoo, but really, what could they have done to stop it – sue the millions of trolls? I’m curious to see how the law may evolve (if at all) to handle online harassment cases that are as weird as the Harambe one…

  3. francoismba · ·

    Personally, I’d be mortified if someone found a picture of me and used it to create a meme. However, all of my tagged Facebook photos are private so hopefully I will never have to worry about this. It baffles me that people get such a kick out of these memes. I remember when ‘Alex from Target’ became an Internet sensation just because a customer took a picture of him while he was running the register at Target. Although ‘Alex from Target’ benefited from the publicity, that is not always the case. For instance, people often suffer when a stranger takes his/her pictures off his/her Facebook and they are using them on their Facebook with out permission or payment. This often leads to a long battle between Facebook, law enforcement and the two parties.

  4. finkbecca · ·

    This was a really cool post. I’ve seen something about the ERMAHGERD girl photo before, but I see that Success Kid meme everywhere and I never thought about where that one came from. I’ve never seen the stalker girl one, but I’m shocked to hear she is making so much money off that photo and her videos. It’s crazy how quickly a video or photo can go viral and, I completely agree, I wouldn’t want it to be some crazy photo of me!

    You said that photos posted to your own social media account are your property and someone else using them is copyright infringement, I didn’t realize! That actually really surprises me.

  5. i have to admit, I love memes. But it’s easy to say when I’m not the face of a picture that’s been circulated millions of times. I sometimes forget they are real people and it’s interesting hear about who they are and the background of the original photo. To me, I think this really violates their privacy. For people who are now making a significant salary from it, I think they’ve made the conscious decision to give-up their privacy in exchange for monetary gain.

  6. Great topic, particularly given our guest speaker this week (and I believe our topic for the following week as well). So, we’ll deal more with that later. We’ll also watch an interested TED video on what it’s like to be on the other side of a not-so-good meme.

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