Get real, Getty Images

Photo Credit: Lisa Dimyadi

The fruits of creative labour are among the most zealously guarded; who enjoys having the things they’ve poured their souls into stolen? In the information age, where intellectual property often takes on an easily-filched digital form, it’s understandable that conflicts over it are prone to escalation. However, a rather unassuming portion of the digital dimension is currently under fire.

German blog GetDigital recently broke a gag order for the noble purpose of warning fellow meme-wielders about an astonishing development: the famed ‘Socially Awkward Penguin’ meme, featuring a penguin against a captioned blue background, has gone from humorous and great to schmuck bait. Seattle-based stock photo agency Getty Images, the image’s original source, has been fining blogs displaying the meme on the basis of copyright violation, threatening to take legal action.

Basically, you might get bullied into paying up hundreds of dollars because you thought a photo of a penguin might get a chuckle out of your readers. I don’t think it takes a lawyer to establish that this is one of the most unbelievable witch hunts in history.

Getty may have rights to that image, but their methodology in protecting those rights is closer to intimidation than anything. They’re trying to take laws designed to guard people from injustice and use them to squeeze money out of innocents, and somehow, I doubt it has anything to do with their appreciation of photography.

Although this is one of Getty’s more ridiculous moves, they actually have a reputation for being unreasonable about copyright. Most companies simply send warnings to offenders, who often take down the offensive material without complaint. Not only does Getty attempt to impose fines with no prior warning, said fines are exorbitant compared to what’s considered normal for unauthorized use of photos. In one case, they demanded £6,000 from a church website in England, for photos that would probably warrant a few hundred pounds at most.

Besides, Getty must realize that most, if not all, of the ‘offending’ blogs aren’t even aware that the image isn’t from the public domain. It’s been circulating the Internet for years, and it’s even had its own KnowYourMeme article since 2009; if it’s such a problem, you’d think Getty would’ve taken action before now, right?

The blog PetaPixel speculates that Getty is sending out ‘gag orders’ to copyright violators — basically, violators are not supposed to tell other people about the copyright violation in question (although GetDigital chose to defy it). That seems counterproductive to the goal of getting people to take it down, doesn’t it?  I guess Getty really likes surprise gifts.

They totally aren’t trying to force money out of as many blogs as possible by ensuring that nobody knows that they might want to take the photo down. Of course not. Ha ha. Ha. So ridiculous.

Do such trivial images really necessitate such harsh enforcement on the part of companies like Getty? I don’t think anyone can say with a straight face that losing nearly a thousand dollars fits the crime of posting a penguin surrounded by a charming phrase on your website.

Forget about investigating churches and bloggers — what we need to ask is where Getty gets off using memes, of all things, as blackmail.