Want to Profit Off Your Meme? Good Luck if You Arent White

Gather round, ye olds, and thrill to a tale of yore. Summer 2014, to be exact. The place? Vine (RIP). The hero? AChicago teenager calling herself Peaches Monroee, who uploaded a video in which she described her eyebrows as “on fleek.”

Yea verily, Peaches Monroee’s neologism spread far and wide. Ariana Grandejumped on board, as didKim Kardashian. Brands, not surprisingly, werenext. And lo, wheniHopandTaco Belluse a slang term, aForever 21 crop topcan’t be far behind. Evenrapper/flat-eartherB.o.B goton the act,proclaiming himself Fleekwood Mac onhis song Fleek. But to this day, despite enterprising companies cashingin on the phrase’s “YOLO”-level popularity—“on fleek” hats have adorned multiple celebrity heads—its originator hasn’t seen a cent.

Now, Peaches Monroee, whose real name is Kayla Lewis,hopes to change that. Last week shelauncheda GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign in order to launch a cosmetics and hair-extensionline, asking anyone who uses the phrase to chip in a few bucks. Good for her, right? But also, why didn’t she get college scholarships like Chewbacca Mom, whose claim to fame boils down to laughing while wearing a plastic mask? Lewis’s problem is part intellectual property law, part access to influence, and all systemic racial inequalities. However egalitarian the internet was supposed to be, creatives’ ability to profit off their viral contentseems to depend on their race.

What’s in a Meme

The internet may have started as a utopian dream, but becoming an engine of capitalism was just about inevitable. And starting around2010—when Hot Topic stuck Rageguy on a T-shirt, much to 4chan’s, well, rage—the meme-to-merch-to-money pipelinehas been humming. Some of it has even benefited thememe creators themselves. “The people behind keyboard catand Nyan Cat did a really good job of capitalizing on their intellectual property,” says Kate Miltner, an internet researcher at the University of Southern California. “Grumpy cat wrote the textbook: There was the book, the movie, they even have grumppuccinos.”

The windfall isn’t confined to cats, either. Besides Chewbacca Mom, financial successes include Daniel Lara of “Damn, Daniel,” who parlayed his Vine fame intoa lifetime supply of Vans and an Ellen appearance. Or Danielle Bregoli, whose threat to a Dr. Phil audience—now meme-mortalized as “cash me outside, howbow dah?“—catapulted her to $30,000 paychecks for meet-and-greets.

Lewis’ immediate barrier compensation is partially the way in which her work became a meme. “A phrase is a difficult thing to protect,” says KJ Greene, a law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. “If you’re wealthy and legally savvy, you might be able to trademark your catchphrase, like Paris Hilton did with ‘that’s hot.’” But that’s still tricky to pull off: President Trump failed to trademark “You’re fired.”

But there is another thing that separates Lewis from the Lara’s and Bregoli’s and Hilton’s as well: she’s black. “I cannot name a person of color who has created something viral and capitalized off of it,” says April Reign, managing editor of Broadway Black and originator of the annually-trending#OscarsSoWhite. And considering the amount of incredibly popular memes created by people of color—spanning from Kimberly Wilkin’s(AKA Sweet Brown) “Ain’t nobody got time for that” to Confused Mr. Krabs to the first Arthur-fist memeto “on fleek”—that’s a significant omission.

When Remixing Verges on Whitewashing

Of course, twas ever thus. “Going back to the minstrel period, there is something about African-American culture that drives pop culture trends,” says Greene. “But musicians from places like the South Bronx had no idea they were creating something that would be a phenomenon, and IP law struggles with things created by a community rather than an individual—it was hard to tell who created that blues riff or that beat.”

To some, memes creators face a similar issue as blues musicians or early hip-hop pioneers. “Memes are remixed and often appropriated, so they mutate over time,” says Sanjay Sharma, who teaches courses on new media and internet politics at Brunel University London. “Most folks who share a meme are oblivious to who originated it. People who claim Peaches shouldn’t be compensated can trade on this kind of argument.”

It’s a fair point, but it also falls apartin the face of how white meme creators have capitalized on their proverbial 15 minutes. That points to a stark difference in the way creators of color are viewed. “What Peaches does,what Sweet Brown does, is always viewed as lower class, and an example of what all black people must be doing,” says Andr Brock, who teaches race, ethnicity, and new media at the University of Michigan. “When white people do that online, it’s promoted as their command of the digital space. Black people are never seen as enterprising.”

The problem is especially glaring since many successful memes scoop their punchiness from black culture anyway. “The reason the ‘cash me outside’ girl is ‘funny’ is because she’s a white female using a voice associated with black culture,” says Catherine Knight Steele, who teaches race, gender, and media at the University of Maryland. “Sweet Brown isnt funny in the same waythe humor is different. It’s mockery. ‘Cash me outside’ almost feels like shes in on the joke.”

“It’s very apparent that it’s happening along racial lines,” April Reign says of the meme monetizationgap. “Are the IP lawyers and trademark people reaching out to people of color? Are publicists reaching out and saying, ‘Hey let’s get you on The Ellen Show?’” For now, it’s clear that they are not.

And while somebody can argue that Ellen‘s audience (and booking agent)is way more likely to have seen “Damn, Daniel” or Chewbacca Mom on Facebook than Lewis on Vine, the excuse is getting a little tired. Even digital spaces that black culture fueled—like Vine—seem to forget about their creators of color when its time to go take things IRL and make some money. “There was an entire tour of kids who were popular on Vine, but I dont remember seeing many black kids on that tour,” Miltner says.

There may be hope;Kayla Lewis has managed toraise $11,000 in just 8 days of crowdfunding. (She’s aiming for $100,000.) That’s due not only to hertenacity, but tothe internet at large. “Now you have receipts,” Steele says, referring to the verifiable proof that Lewiscoined the term. “Online content creation creates a way to trace something. And you can push back in the same medium used to steal from you.”

Even better, Lewis isn’t the only one.There’s a growing force of people of color bent on getting their due for their digital creativity. “Im in conversations now about what we can do for black content creators to make sure that theyre monetizing,” Reign says. “The next step is to determine how to ensure people are recognized as the original creator of a work. Nobody envisioned the internet when they were writing intellectual property laws. I think theres an opportunity now for lawyers to do something really important.” Because getting just rewards for your efforts? Definitely on fleek.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2017/03/on-fleek-meme-monetization-gap/