For those unfamiliar, Grumpy Cat is a “viral meme” of a “stern-looking house cat named Tardar Sauce.”1 A former Time Warner cable technician first posted the photo of his sister’s “Grumpy Cat” on Reddit in September 2012.2
At least four copyright registrations and a trademark registration related to Grumpy Cat have been registered in the United States. In 2013, Grumpy Cat Limited (the owner of the rights) entered into a licensing agreement with Grenade Beverage in California to sell “Grumpy Cat Grumppucino” coffee. Grenade, however, exceeded the scope of the agreement. Grenade sold other coffee products, such as Grumpy Cat Roasted Coffee, which were not authorized under the licensing agreement. Grumpy Cat remained unamused. Grumpy Cat Limited sued Grenade in federal court in Orange County, California. According to the Complaint, “Defendants’ despicable misconduct here has actually given Grumpy Cat and her owners something to be grumpy about.” The case proceeded to trial. On January 22, 2018, the jury found in favor of Grumpy Cat Limited, awarding it over $700,000 in copyright and trademark damages.
Copyright Reg. No. VA0001849042 Unauthorized Use
So, what are the takeaways?
1. If you create a meme that goes viral, you might be able to quit your day job. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Grumpy Cat’s owner quit her job as a server at Red Lobster to focus on promoting Grumpy Cat full time. Grumpy Cat has appeared on The Bachelorette, American Idol, a Cheerios commercial, and a Lifetime special, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.3 For this to happen, it is very important to protect your rights. If you independently create a meme and it goes “viral,” protect yourself by applying for a copyright registration. It is generally not possible to sue for copyright infringement until you have at least filed an application for a copyright registration.
2. Monetize your intellectual property. Market and sell products or license the rights to others.
3. If you can commercialize the use of your image or name to market, sell, or license goods or services, consult with a trademark attorney and file for a trademark application.
4. Enforce your rights. If someone uses your image or trademark without permission, there are a variety of ways to enforce your rights short of litigation, and if all else fails, you can sue them.
2 “The 7-Figure Scowl: How Grumpy Cat Is Building A Media Empire,” The Hollywood Reporter, 7/30/ 2014 https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/7-figure-scowl-how-grumpy-721883