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.

  • Benicio Murray

    get over yourself and simply enjoy your e-fame

  • Eric Malinski

    You are WRONG. Intellectual property laws protect this kind of expression. Andras point is that the arguments being used here are ridiculous and make about as much sense as his illogical conclusion. If you actually had a point to make you should have made it… then again I don’t think you do have a point to make. beyond belittling Andras.

    If you guys had half a mind you would think about the application of your understanding of intellectual property laws to other industries. Like journalism. instead you argue in a vacuum and fail as a result.

  • Eric Malinski

    no no. they don’t want to actually research this stuff. They are on a crusade for the sorry dude who wishes he had more money.

  • Eric Malinski

    Pro tip: when you steal something you take that thing away from the owner. This is not Stealing it is Copying .. or more accurately Using.. you could even say its Fair Use. The fact that you can’t make that distinction outs you as a know nothing not a know it all.

  • Eric Malinski

    You are pretty sure? Have you even looked into the application of fair use? Do you even know where to begin. Stop talking out your rear and do some research. or maybe open your eyes. if what you guys are arguing was actually true the world would be a significantly difference place with respect to media on the internet. But its not. because your wrong.

  • Eric Malinski

    HAHAHAHA you get three downvotes because they don’t agree with you but they can’t point to a single case where something like this has happened and the person has received money. They are in their own little world.

  • Eric Malinski

    Academic debate? You kid yourself. Go actually read about the stuff your talking about and you’d be able to explain why NOBODY gets money for this sort of thing. NOBODY.

  • Eric Malinski

    The whole article is a joke then? This guy writes articles where he whines about lost opportunities.. but hes not being serious? uh huh.

  • Nathan Hornby

    This isn’t journalism, if you’re arguing fair use.

    Fair use alters based on location, copyright isn’t a globally consistent thing – so it teds to be a muddy subject, admittedly.

    Either way my point still stands, that the comment I was referring to showed a flawed understanding of copyright – my aim wasn’t to belittle, however I appreciate why it came cross that way.

  • Guest

    now i clicked on the 9gag link and spent the last 1.5 hours there! :(
    i blame you!

    9gag links should be banned for wasting too much time =/

  • Nathan Hornby

    What sort of thing? Images? Or memes?

    Because both make people plenty of money. The latter just doesn’t make the rights holder or the deriver any money, but I can assure you it’s making someone lots of money.

  • Kireji

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

  • Daniel Austin Hoherd

    I agree with you, and here’s why. Your Flickr page clearly has the photo marked as Copyright All Right Reserved. It doesn’t say attribution or remixing, or commercial use is allowed. Assuming you had that photo posted with the same copyright from day 1, you are correct in saying that your copyright is being violated.

    So, what are you going to do about it? Get a lawyer and go after these commercial sites?

  • Daniel Austin Hoherd

    That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying people who watch movies should be paid because they went looking for entertainment and found it, and that is why the entertainment became popular.

  • Dave Reynolds

    Because he writes like a troll and I doubt he has sold photos. I’d like to be proven wrong.

  • Daniel Austin Hoherd

    Judging by what happened to Shepard Fairey I don’t think this would qualify as transformative Fair Use.

  • Steve Leach

    reading the comments really says it all, People wrongfully think that any photo on the internet is public domain and can then be reused by anyone for any reason and that is just not true. Fair Use is the flag often waived in these situations or people just do not care that a photographer does have rights to how the photo is used and should be able to control its use by giving permissions or requesting payment for use. I had something like this happen to me where a photo I tool went totally viral over the world, shown on TV on every major and minor network in the US, published in the UK, Australia, and several other countries. I did not even get photo credits in most cases. In my case Fair Use was sighted because my photo was considered NEWS (but there are legal battles going on right now to stop this fair use stealing of images). Problem is that its so easy to steal a photo with a few clicks of a mouse, then post it under your name to a sight that allows you to then download it and kaboom you have a viral photo, people making money indirectly off the popularity of the photo, free advertising of web site driving more and more traffic to site with ads, and yep someone is making more money because that photo was posted. If they would have just linked to his Flickr page in the first place, no harm done. Just sad to see that news agencies, large web site providers and others have zero regard for photographers rights or willingness to pay a penny for photos they use or steal.

  • Dave Reynolds

    We can argue intellectual property rights for days. The record labels have tried arguing this for ten+ years and look where they are: they’ve tried litigating their position while their customers and bands are shifting away from them.

    You can drive yourself crazy with coulda-woulda-shoulda. The reality is that people take photos and make entertainment from them. 9gag makes money from aggregated content, not specific content. Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal tried taking on an aggregation site and found himself entangled with a bottom-feeding attorney. Fortunately, he had a user base that rallied to his aid and was able to humiliate the attorney.

    The great majority of photographers are, frankly, also-rans. And they all take ok images and eke out some kind of income from them. I’m one of those photographers. I take decent pictures but I don’t think they are anything better than what many other photogs can take. I post my images online knowing they may get ripped off (but they probably won’t because they are average or on lucky days, a bit above average).

    From a practical perspective, piracy will always exist and it will be impossible to control. The best thing to do is accept it and ride with it. This guy got a lot of mileage from his image. The meme created more value in the image (which was, by the author’s admission, for his own entertainment). His image has generated more views with the meme value-add than he ever created on his own with his sweet picture sitting in a Flickr library.

    So my point to the author is: chill out. You can sit around and pretend to buy a huge house with all those lost revenues and you can rue the injustice of it all but where does that get you? Nowhere other than a lot of anxiety and resentment.

    I agree with what a few others have posted: I’d love to have someone take one of my images and make a meme out of it. I would gain more satisfaction from seeing my image spread because people loved it and thought it was entertaining than I would from getting $400 for it.

    As another commenter said, if you post something on the internet, you can’t get too upset if someone rips it off. If you do, it’s nothing but an emotional dead end and a financial dream.

  • Chris Newhall

    You sound like the government. Stay the hell out of our internetz.

  • Wing Wong

    Kinda sucks that you didn’t get paid. Parody is not, in and of itself, a fair use of the photo. It still needs to pass the tests for legitimate fair use. Failing that, you can file a DMCA take down against any and ALL sites with the image and those that do not take it down, since all meme modifications of your original work are derived works without your expressed permission and in some cases, the copies of copies are being used to derive financial benefit, you have a case. Just a lot of tedious cases.

    Submit takedowns, and if the hosting provider fails to take down, sue them. This is obviously bothering you, and you are not a public figure, so posting it on flickr doesn’t constitute entering it into the public domain.

  • Wing Wong

    Parody and satire are derived works, which requires the permission of the original artist/copyright holder to give permission for publication/sale, if they do not pass the tests for fair use.

  • James Kennedy

    Simply put, you are Wrong!!! Posting a pic on Flickr does not place it in the public domain.

  • Albi Kl

    Where some see theft, others see opportunity. Free publicity is hard to come by and should be leveraged accordingly.

  • Frankie Cho

    Next time if you don’t want your photo to become a meme, just reverse the order of the photo.

  • Eric Malinski

    Its almost like you can’t see beyond your own little world. I can only imagine the mental back flips you need to do in order to grapple with the fact that this sort of thing happens constantly and it doesn’t result in successful lawsuits and happy Flickr users running to the bank.

    How do you explain that? Honestly. Or do you think you are the first to consider trying to bilk money from the creators of memes?

  • Eric Malinski

    No this guys just a cry baby.

  • Eric Malinski

    HAHAHAHA. yea right. Lawyers will laugh in his face… actually they won’t. They will take his money and laugh when he leaves the office.

    When your as bent out of shape as the author you don’t ask pragmatic questions like “I wonder if anyone else has gone through this and whether or not a lawyer was able to help them.” because he’d get answers he doesn’t like.

    He’d rather just assemble the internet’s ignorant and have a little hug fest to make him feel better.

  • Eric Malinski

    By this sort of thing I’m referring to the authors complaint. He wants money for someone taking a picture on the internet and making a meme out of it. thats not going to happen. Boo hoo. He should just move on and let go. Instead he rages while trying to get the ignorant internet masses to pick sides.

    If hes so correct why not start up some kind of fund for him and he can hire a lawyer and plead his case. …

    Yea I didn’t think so. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on but he’ll still appreciate posting whiny blog articles looking for sympathy.

  • Catalin Haldan

    You’re right, I couldn’t see the original picture because it was in a private place. Internet sharing = private place.

  • Eric Malinski

    He’s not thinking with a straight head. Its also the reason why he can simultaneously be certain he’s owed money but he won’t actually follow up by contacting a lawyer. He didn’t write this article for a solution he wrote it so he could have a little cry publicly and be comforted by the internets ignorant copyright lawyer wannabes

  • Eric Malinski

    no no. he doesn’t actually want to do anything about it. he just wants to complain. doing something about it could result in him failing and that would shatter is delusion of how the world works.

  • Susan M. Risk

    Flickr lets us screen out potential copy of our images, and prohibits Pinterest from doing this, so do you think Pinterest let people cop your shot from what source?

  • Amanda Padgett

    I just wanted to thank you for taking the picture and doing the edits in the first place. It’s a cute example of how a sweet, childhood moment is viewed by three different individuals. As a mom of four kids, we gone through many a child-toss-in-air events, much to the child’s delight and my apprehension. ;-)

  • me

    lol …. “but that’d probably be bad for his brain.”

    at least you have a sense of humor about it. but my oh my, look at the comments below about whether u feel/peep feel u deserve anything. oy…. i believe u said “I WISH I HAD A PENNY FOR EVERYTIME IT WAS VIEWED/SHARED” not I WANT/DESERVE A PENNY….

    way to stir the pot again! ;P

  • me

    bahahaha… trolling fb found ur pix on the Humor 24/7 “) page. lol

  • ghg

    If u dont want ppl using your picture dont put it on flickr

  • Jethro

    If I take an image, and I post it on my site and then you copy it and publish it then you have taken something from me. You’ve not taken the image, but you have taken away my ability to sell sole use rights on that image.

  • Jethro

    You realize that in just something like a catalog there are dozens of “not worth anything” pictures making up composite images to sell product, right?
    I could take a shot of a crumpled soda can with no artistic value whatsoever, but the day a stock buyer needs that for a composite it becomes worth something. It’s always cheaper to buy stock than commission a photographer.

  • Simon Pope

    more like it

  • mymymy

    Images are constantly being ripped off from their rightful owners. It’s beyond sad & wrong, yet many people (the general public) don’t realize the impact. If this photo was a taxi that the driver depended on for a living, everyone would be upset for him, side with him and help him get his taxi back. Photographers and illustrators, heck any type of artist, are being ripped off everyday and no one seems to care. Their artwork IS their livelihood. If people, organizations and companies spread these unauthorized images around (or worse, use them in any sort of advertising), maybe not getting payment directly for this image, but if it draws attention to their product/business/company then they ARE making money from this image… the photographer is left in the dust once again.

  • Adam Lipstadt

    Um, you have a three month grace period to *register* copyright. Takes 10 minutes online. Do that and you don’t actually have to prove actual damages (e.g. lost sales and licensing) as with the natural (unregistered) copyright. College fund.

  • Adam Lipstadt

    Wow. Someone who actually knows what they are talking about. You must *not* be a pro photographer.

    (He should probably register copyright first. DMCA takedowns work a lot better with an LOC copyright number.)

  • Rich Demanowski

    Nah. College will be far worse for his brain than being tossed into the air by daddy.

    (I speak from experience. It took me decades to recover the objectivity, skepticism, curiosity, creativity, and love of learning that were systematically expunged from me by the modern system of schooling.)

  • Psychocist

    It became a meme. So what? It doesn’t just entitle you to money. What happened to people making their way from real achievements and not cheap stunts?

  • Rick

    An interesting discussion, especially about the “bottom-feeding attorneys” – I love that phrase.

    But guys. And girls. It is the giants: Google, Yahoo, etc. that live off your stolen content. The success of the Internet itself is due to stealing, that is zilching, aggregating, reworking, etc. somebody’s else materials.

    Remember the boilerplate disclaimer “No part of this [book, photo, movie – fill in the blank] may be reproduced, transmitted to, or stored on any other website in any other electronic medium” ?

    It is being violated billion times every second by any decent search engine who earns their buck from it. And million times by the public adding to smb’s elses work, without thinking of asking for permission. And we are part of the thieving machine, willy nilly, just by using their services…

  • Mulberry Manor Photography

    Haha, well John, if you weren’t famous before, you certainly are now. Can’t believe I even found this post having never been on this site before. I clicked on the title thinking “wow, this sounds like what happened to John, I bet he’d like to read this” and here it is…you. Again. Mulberry Manor girl (Christine) finding you all over the net. ;) Thanks for commenting on my last pic…it’s still crazy snowing here. I’m about ready to head your way asap!

  • Mike Spanjar

    Dude, you put your pic in the public domain. This doesn’t surprise you, I hope. As for you or your son being identifiable, that’s barely true, and so what — is someone going to use your photo to hunt you down? If it were me, I’d be honored that the public enjoyed something I made. They enjoyed it enough to give it 15 minutes of fame. Not many people can say that.

  • Bryansix

    I typically post my photos as CC-NC-ND. I don’t really care too much about the derivative part although it is there as a safety measure but I would enforce the Non-commercial measure. Sites which capitalize on a derivative work but pay no money to the creator of the work are walking a fine line of legality. I doubt anybody will enforce it though because unlike this case, most photos are never traced to their originators.

    I however encourage my works to be used in the public domain for non-profit uses.

  • Ray Escamilla

    Stolen? You sir have an illusion about photos publicly posted on the interwebs. It’s not like anyone who posted it made any $$ off of it. If you really feel “robbed” sue facebook for the traffic it gained from the conversations had.

  • Dave Strain

    Eric… There are many things being done to multitudes of persons everyday or as you put it happening constantly that are wrong… you sir were apparently thrown too high in the air as a child!