Elon Musk — the Tesla chief executive, SpaceX founder and soon-to-be "Saturday Night Live" host — is an open admirer of memes.
"Who controls the memes controls the universe," Musk tweeted last summer. He has called the visual jokes "modern art" and shares them regularly on Twitter, where he has more than 52 million followers.
Musk doesn't make many memes himself. Instead, he finds them online and has others send him their favourites. Sometimes he reposts his favourites without citing their origins.
This practice isn't unusual. Many people on the internet share other people's memes without giving the creators credit, in part because credit can be hard to discern. Memes rely on reinterpretations of joke formats, and it's not always clear where they begin.
But the fact that Elon Musk frequently steals memes has become, essentially, a meme in itself. And it's not always perceived as very funny.
For comedians and content creators, memes are valuable intellectual property. Nick Noerdlinger, 23, the managing director of the website Meme Insider, noted that there are business implications in giving or denying credit. "Because the internet is so vast and broad, credit is the one thing that directs people back towards someone who ultimately may be making a living through the platform," he said. "In the creator economy, without credit, the creators themselves would not be able to monetise, build a brand around themselves and bring in an audience.
In recent years, viral meme accounts that have built and monetised big followings by reposting work from other creators without credit or payment have encountered backlash. In 2019, a conversation about this issue was jump-started by a campaign against an Instagram account run by Jerry Media. It helped shift the standards by which brands and top influencers abide by today.
Quinn Heraty, a lawyer specialising in intellectual property law, noted that in 2017 the rapper Ludacris was sued by the website LittleThings for posting an illustration from the site on his Instagram, without giving credit. (The parties reached a settlement.)
Heraty said that without "transformative use," there could be a case for copyright infringement. "If he's stripping the credit from the image and posting without reference to the original creator, that shows willfulness," she said, of Musk.
Now, when a brand uses a meme for marketing purposes, it generally asks for permission to share the image, and credits the owner. In many cases, the brand also pays. Musk, who is both a successful businessman and a freewheeling personal brand, appears to be an exception.
"It's very difficult to talk about something like this without seeming like you seem mad about it," said Patrick Monahan, 37, a comedian and podcast host whose meme was shared by Musk without credit. "Ultimately this is not stealing a movie screenplay or a whole song, but it's spiritually the same kind of thing. It's just uncool."
It may grate more for the simple fact that Musk, who this year was briefly the richest man on Earth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has used Twitter to bolster his persona (and promote cryptocurrencies and stocks, including his own).
Jamie Trufin, who runs a meme account called @DogeCoinDaddy, said he was disappointed when Musk posted one of his Doge memes in March without credit.
"It kind of kills your vibe," Trufin, 24, said. "You work so hard on making all these memes. I could have gotten a couple hundred followers from that, and it would have made the community thicker and happier. He got us all excited for Dogecoin, but him ripping off meme pages and not giving them credit kind of kills the fun." (The price of Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency, has continued to rise, thanks in part to Musk's tweets about it.)
In January, Musk reposted a meme about web domains made by Ben Howdle, 31, who runs a tech-themed meme account. Howdle was puzzled as to why someone with such vast resources would share another person's work without credit. "You'd think if you were the world's richest person you wouldn't need your ego massaged," he said. (For what it's worth, Musk is only the second richest now.)
Musk has been doing this for a while. In April 2020, he shared a meme created by a comedian that included a photo of her dog, which some say Musk tried to pass off as his own.
In 2019, after facing criticism for sharing artwork on Twitter without credit, Musk initially tweeted, "always credit everyone." Then, he reversed course: "no one should be credited with anything ever," he wrote, suggesting that "any fool can find out who the artist was in seconds."
Miles Klee, a 36-year-old writer in Los Angeles, heard from a friend that a meme he had made in April about vaccinated people enjoying a promiscuous summer had been reposted by Musk. "Someone in my group chat was like, 'LOL did everyone see how Elon straight up stole a meme that Miles made?'"
Klee isn't angry at Musk, but found the behaviour off-putting. "Of course he has his minions who are willing to defend what he does," Klee said, "but for everyone else who is normal who has been on the internet for a long time, it's like, 'Yeah, that's a wack move.'"
Chas Steinbrugge, 19, a college freshman who runs the meme account @Trigomemetry, is also the creator of Meme Citations, a website that provides the origins of memes in Modern Language Association format.
"Personalities like Elon Musk not giving credit, that does hurt the creators," he said. "He could create a situation where he's promoting young meme creators and contributing to the community by tagging whoever created it or including watermarks."
Several people who have had their content posted by Musk have since asked for payment, be it in dollars, Teslas or Bitcoin. (Monahan said he was willing to accept a "mere US$80,000.")
Klee took a more novel approach. "Can anyone help me make and sell an NFT of a screen shot of Elon Musk posting a horny vaccine meme i made?" he asked his followers on Twitter. Someone turned the tweet into an NFT, which Klee was able to sell for US$1,000 in the cryptocurrency Ethereum.
Reached by email for comment on this article, Musk responded with two uncredited memes.
Written by: Taylor Lorenz
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