How My Personal Photo Turned Into an Internet Meme

In 2008, I had this kooky idea to take my then 4-year-old son out to an abandoned road and throw him into the air, since it seemed most fathers like to do this with their kids. There was this long, abandoned road near my house, so we set up there. After getting my Nikon D200, self-timer, and tripod ready, my son decided that he didn’t want to be thrown into the air, so I just held him up instead. I then took another photo of myself looking up with my arms extended.

Using Photoshop, I created a manipulated photo showing him many feet above me, exaggerating the results with the assumption that most people would know I didn’t/couldn’t actually do this — I’m not that strong:

I posted it on Flickr in August of 2008 and people liked it. Then a few nights ago, my friend on Facebook shared a funny meme that has been circulating around the Internets the last few days. I was shocked to find it was my photo, manipulated and annotated with the following phrases (and I’ll admit, it’s funny):

I asked the Facebook page to remove it, but the admin replied, “Tell that to all the websites with this photo. It’s everywhere”. Oh boy.

Soon I discovered it on the front page of Reddit, being bounced around Tumblr, pinned all over Pinterest, and across joke and mommy pages on Facebook. It was even translated into a Russian-language photo showing my son being hit by a missle and me being hit by some sort of Soviet transport vehicle:

The best part was how certain people responded to seeing the photo(s) — they believed it was real:

What it all comes down to is this: the photo was stolen. No one paid me a dime to use it, and it has been seen by millions of people. Both my son and I are identifiable in the image.

No one was hurt. No one was disgraced or humiliated, and Child Protective Services didn’t come knocking on my door. It’s all good fun.

Nonetheless, the photo was stolen and edited without my permission. I just wish I had a penny for every time it was viewed/shared — my son could have his own college scholarship. He’d be willing to be tossed into the air for that, but that’d probably be bad for his brain.

About the author: John Mueller is a professional wedding, portrait and landscape photographer based in Ventura County, CA. He is active on Flickr and on on Facebook.

  • Vlad Dusil

    Internet meme don’t care about your copyright. All of your pix are belong to them.

  • DMAN

    Love your write up John ! People out there are ridiculous if they thought any human could throw a child that size that high in either the 2nd and 3rd pictures. Some people are just plain DUMB.

  • Meefo King

    Get off your horse. You don’t deserve college tuition for your son for that hack photoshop work. Do you actually believe you deserve riches for the minimal effort you took to create the initial photo? Other folks–and brighter minds than yours–created something wholly different and far more interesting than your original work. Welcome to the internet.

  • Nakamura

    Everybody who’s ever had a photo used for a meme has wished they could be compensated “every time it was viewed/shared” — welcome to the internets.

  • Miki Ballard

    His creativity is not the point of the article. His point is that his photo was stolen and appropriated for use by others without his permission. But, you know, what to take that chip on your shoulder and project it to other people.

  • kuskuss2

    well given the number of idi*ts these days i don´t doubt many took it for real….

  • Miki Ballard

    Doesn’t mean it is right or that it should continue. “Welcome to the internets” is the kind of attitude that promotes this blatant disregard for photo copyright.

  • Nathan Hornby

    Haha, nice touch including the Facebook comments. They’re a bit like YouTube comments… in that they make you worry for humanity.

  • Photosbyrome

    It’s an Internet meme. No one made money from it. Its meant to be funny. Just laugh it off and move along. if money were made from memes, There would be cat millionaires

  • DMAN

    It’s been sitting in his Flickr account for 4 years. He never intended to try and make 1 red cent or impress anyone but himself with that picture. This all came about because someone took it from his Flickr account and the rest is history. He has tons of pictures done in fun for the sole purpose of just doing it for himself…not to make money. It was never meant to leave Flickr.

  • Arcteryx

    I think you should go back and read that part where he says, “I just wish…”, and consider the possibility that he’s not really serious. Just tossing that idea into the air for you to think about, I hope it wasn’t bad for your brain.

  • Dave Reynolds

    Chill out, John and have some fun. Your picture turned into a meme, which is pretty awesome. Get over the “if i had a penny…” silliness and enjoy the photo for how you intended it for yourself. Be happy that other people enjoyed it too.

  • Dave Reynolds

    It seems like every photographer thinks their photos are worth money. Honestly, most are not. This is an example of one that isn’t. The meme made the photo funny. That doesn’t mean the photo is worth money.

  • hwardly

    So that means someone has the right to take the photo and do whatever they want with it? Its still stealing. Just because someone uploads a photo to a site like flickr doesnt mean that its up for grabs.

  • TextuallyActive

    “You saw a picture of me that I posted to the internet, I want money now!”

  • Neoracer Xox

    wELCOME To ThE iNTERnETS!!!!!!!

  • Alexander

    Ha-ha, Image is evolving!

  • Dave

    How bout’ using this story to bring attention to the pics he has that are worth buying?
    There’s probably plenty of pics online of people throwing kids in the air.
    It was a cool story until the part about the pic being stolen. Is it stolen if a million people go to your site and look at it for free? Are you willing to pay people to tag your website everytime they repost that picture?

  • Simon

    All your base are belong to us!

  • dkmdlb

    Nothing was stolen from you. You still have everything you started with. I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to explain this to people.

    Even under current copyright laws, this is clearly fair use and therefore perfectly legitimate.

  • Cameron Thompson

    His main theme isnt about money, its about stealing. If any of you nitwitts actually paid any attention to the business of these photographers you are bashing you would realize there are copyright laws and literally tens of thousands of dollars in unclaimable infringements thanks to all you morons that think you get to decide what’s worth money and what should be free just because youve mastered the right click save image feature. And just fyi i have had plenty of images idiots like you said werent worth a penny and an advertising company picked it up and ive made a few hundred on those “worthless” photos. So get over yourself and consider those of us that depend on our art to pay the bills. Stealing is stealing, whether you think youre justified or not.

  • Carlos Garcia

    All of you make good points, but a HUGE amount of money is being made, people visit sites like 9gag a LOT, and all their content is stolen, just like this. So while Its nice to see that people enjoy your photos, I hate to see site like 9gag make money from stolen photos and their generated traffic.

  • Dave Reynolds

    Please link to the images you’ve sold for commercial use. I’d love to see your work.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    Lol… Do you think Bad Luck Brian and Scumbag Steve “got a penny every time their image was viewed”?
    Sounds like the author of this article is new to the internets and is confused.

  • Joshua Morin

    Why? Seeing his work will validate his point?

  • Tom

    Theres no way they would receive any money anyway from google with the copyright soundtrack and footage etc

  • Bhautik Joshi

    I’ve had that happen to me a few times too, and it’s no fun. And the assertion that nobody makes money from it is false.

    The key part is that by the time someone has realised that their image has been shared, it’s already received tens or even hundreds of thousands of hits, the image hoster has received a chunk of advertising revenue and requesting the image to be taken down will have little effect.

    I think it’s driven by the simple gratification people receive when they post something at it receives kudos – likes on facebook, karma on reddit, pins on pinterest etc. In such a scheme, it’s in the interest of the person that posts the image to make it look like they were the first to do it – this means removing attribution, erasing watermarks, adding a new watermark(!) etc.

    I had an image of mine posted to and shared on reddit a few months back without attribution. By the time I had found it it happened – literally a day after I had posted my image on flickr – the copied image had received nearly 3/4 of a million hits on imgur, and the poster of the image received thousands of ‘karma’ for it. That’s a _lot_ of advertising revenue that it generated for imgur, and I wasn’t going to see a penny of it. I didn’t mind that people were sharing it, but it bothered me that someone else was making money from it.

    On the imgur side of things: I was pretty annoyed that was making advertising revenue off a stolen image, and I speculate that it’s a component of their operating strategy. I dug around and I found a number to call them and ask about this in person. I was told by one of the founders that if I wanted attribution, I should have ‘watermarked my picture’* – and was dumbfounded. They never directly addressed the issue of advertising revenue.

    Because they have a DMCA takedown procedure, what they’re doing is distasteful, but not illegal. A site like flickr has a similar policy, but the difference is that it is actively policed and easy to do.

    On the reddit side of things: when I asked about why I didn’t receive attribution on reddit, I was shouted down and told that if I post something online, I should expect that it would be shared around. I discovered that ‘original content’ was something that was frowned upon as reposing images was a way of collecting karma. The trouble with this is that, as I had indicated above, it actively discourages attribution for images.

    The whole loop is insidious, but I don’t see it changing or being fixed anytime in the near future :(

    * I was later told that this was ‘not official company policy’.

  • Brent

    lol this person doesn’t deserve a dime…

  • Dave Reynolds

    It calls his bluff.

  • guest

    ” I just wish I had a penny for every time it was viewed/shared — my son could have his own college scholarship”

    That’s not the way internet memes work… That’s not the way the internet works when you share photos through social media.

  • guest

    what would you propose, banning sites like tumblr and not allowing people to share images on facebook, to prevent memes from existing?

  • salyabyum

    what I think is funny is that the author claims that himself and his child are identifiable, yet his friend posted the meme not knowing it was him and his child. huh?

  • András László József Halák

    Then I’m sure you’d agree that the one, who discovered this photo in his flickr stream, should be paid too, since if it wasn’t for him,or her, no-one would know this picture.

  • Max Powers

    You could say the same thing about the comments on this post.

  • Nathan Hornby

    Technically, on YouTube, copyright holders can seize earnings from videos that infringe their rights. So there’s a chance that whoever uploaded said video is making nothing, and the record label is raking in all that money.

    This sounds like a better system than it is, as it’s quite often abused by the likes of MPAA, RIA, BPI etc.

  • Nathan Hornby

    I think it’s best if you learn a little about intellectual property rights before you say anything else. Just a tip.

  • Nathan Hornby

    You’re right – and I made the mistake of coming back. And then I fed the trolls :(

  • Nathan Hornby

    You do realise that you could apply this logic to every form of intellectual ownership?

    I don’t think it’s technically a logical fallacy, but it just might be.

  • Nathan Hornby

    Because nobody has ever sold a photo before? You need a citation?

  • Nathan Hornby

    I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t be classified as fair use; it’s a derivative art, if that’s what you mean?

    I agree about the wording though, it’s copyright infringement, not theft.

  • Dylan Bennett

    As someone pointed out earlier, it wasn’t stealing. It was copyright infringement. (And, honestly, even that’s debatable under the same fair use laws that allow much of our entertainment industry to continue to exist.)

    He still has possession of the original photo and no money that he previously had has been taken from him. Other people have copies, which is why it would be considered copyright infringement, but he still has the original photo.

    I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but saying it’s “stealing” is disingenuous.

  • Nathan Hornby

    Hence the choice to keep it protected under Copyright rather than flag it as Creative Commons. Another thing people seem to be blissfully unaware of.

  • Nathan Hornby

    I think what’s more likely is that your reading comprehension is poor enough to miss the tone of the article and that you’re new enough to life to have missed the lesson on intellectual property rights.

    If you’re not able to comprehend the concept that someone is disappointed that an image they own was misappropriated and used without their permission to deepen the pockets of others, then quite frankly I don’t think there’s much of an argument to be had.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    DOOD, that’s what a meme is… a misappropriated image that gets passed around ad nauseum

  • Dan Ballard

    I disagree. The ad revenues for viral videos and memes are very significant. What generates revenue is worth money. How much? I’d not guess but just look at youtube adrev.

  • Nathan Hornby

    Of course (well, on the most part anyway), but that doesn’t magic away copyright. I appreciate that it’s mostly an academic debate, but just because something’s common place doesn’t actually nullify any sanctions against it.
    I’m not suggesting we lock up all the meme creators by the way, it’s important to note that I’m a proponent of copyright reform, but there are contexts, like this, that are a bit of a grey area. The intention of the meme creator is (I’m sure) very rarely to make money, but they are making other people money, they’re a proxy. It’s only half a step removed from comparing it to a corporation grabbing copyright protected images and using them for ads – which I’m sure would draw far more criticism.

  • E A Quinn

    You may not make money of this idea but you could get links for your site. You seem to know where people have posted the image. Why not reach out to a few and show them the original, maybe even this story to support, and offer them a snippet of HTML that they can add for attribution.

    This could translate to extra visitors for your website and/or photography pages. Which may lead to money. Awareness is great if you use it correctly. So, go use it!

  • Danielle Dickerson Cowden

    Rule #1 of photography on the internet, don’t post what you don’t want stolen. It doesn’t matter if it’s a picture of cat poop or a full frontal of a hot girl. Someone will steal it and repost it.

  • John Mueller

    Yeah, and that’s basically what I’ve been doing. I know I’ll never make a silver nickel from it, but oh well. But at least if I show people the original they’ll stop complaining that I’m a kid-flinger. And if it leads to a few more facebook fans, I’m sure that’s better than having CPS show up at my door.

  • Eric Malinski

    Simply put.. You are wrong. Internet aggregation sites owe you nothing. You posted the pic, it became public domain, some people added some stuff and it ended up on reddit.

    Stop pining about crap that happened nearly half a decade ago and go make more beautifully creative pictures.. and then sell those instead of posting them on the internet.