Volume 97, Number 2

May 2022

Memes on Memes and the New Creativity

Amy Adler, Jeanne C. Fromer

Memes are the paradigm of a new, flourishing creativity. Not only are these captioned images one of the most pervasive and important forms of online creativity, but they also upend many of copyright law’s fundamental assumptions about creativity, commercialization, and distribution. Chief among these assumptions is that copying is harmful. Not only does this mismatch threaten meme culture and expose fundamental problems in copyright law and theory, but the mismatch is even more significant because memes are far from an exceptional case. Indeed, memes are a prototype of a new mode of creativity that is emerging in our contemporary digital era, as can be seen across a range of works. Therefore, the concern with memes signals a much broader problem in copyright law and theory. This is not to say that the traditional creativity that copyright has long sought to protect is dead. Far from it. Both paths of creativity, traditional and new, can be vibrant. Yet we must be sensitive to the misfit between the new creativity and existing copyright law if we want the new creativity to continue to thrive.