Along with the rise of social media, the internet has seen a rise in memes, parodies, and transformations of preexisting works. This has created a new layer of copyright law and what constitutes infringement.
A study of court cases after the case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music explored how the standard of transformativeness has been applied in terms of copyright for internet memes as well as how these memes should be protected as artifacts of remix culture.
The study begins by explaining the concept of memes, usually borne from preexisting content and transformed to offer some sort of secondary purpose. The researchers express from the very beginning that memes cannot exist without appropriation, and yet the existence of memes is important to culture and discourse.
Throughout the course of the study, the researchers discuss the issue of transformative use, where one takes the preexisting content and changes aspects in order to serve the desired purpose. They also discuss how memes should be protected because they do not serve for monetary gain and are therefore not taking anything from the original creator.
However, the study discovered that most courts will only grant protection if the purpose is secondary to the original purpose of the content. That to say, if a meme or parody attempts to serve the exact purpose of the piece it is mimicking, it will not be granted protection.
The study of 29 separate court cases helped the researchers determine that the rulings of copyright protection often depended on the ruling court, whether or not the meme was transformative, and that memes should be protected if only for the sole purpose that they are not created to be monetized.
Mielczarek, N., & Hopkins, W. W. (2021). Copyright, Transformativeness, and Protection for Internet Memes. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 98(1), 37-58. doi:10.1177/1077699020988299