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That Viral Thing I Made: The Bitter Reality Of Intellectual Property & Social Media

Content you post to social media WILL be shared, downloaded, used, misused, and abused. Once it's out there, it's almost impossible to retain control of your intellectual property.

If you believe you can copyright your Facebook page content with a status update, I have a bridge for sale.

(January 23, 2015) — This is perhaps the most bizarre–but true–story I will ever tell. I've been writing and designing content for years, and I've made a (somewhat) respectable living at it. I've created logos, brochures, posters, websites, you name it. But much to my dismay, the most popular thing I've ever created–by far–is a viral "post" on Facebook. And when I say post, I mean it was–quite literally–a post.

Confused? Good, so am I. Allow me explain the story behind my rather dubious claim to "fame" on social media. First of all, if you spend any time at all on Facebook, chances are you've come across the image below floating around the network. If so, you're not alone. Millions of people have seen, shared, and commented on it over the past few years.

I created this graphic in 2013 and posted it to my Facebook page in order to make use of an otherwise unusable photo.

As you can see, it's cheesy, it's pointless, it's unoriginal, and it serves no real purpose other than to perpetuate itself via shares. And yes, I, TJ Barranger, am the person responsible for introducing this particular nugget to the social media landscape. How did it come about? Well...

I was walking through a state park along the Susquehanna River in northeastern Maryland, taking photos for use as stock/background imagery in various design projects. One of the subjects that interested me was this mooring post beside one of the locks in a canal adjacent to the river. As I stood back to take the shot, I noticed the post was casting a very crip shadow on the grass. I wanted to include it, but in order to fit the shadow in the frame, I had to shoot the post way off-center. The result was a rather interesting picture.

The original photograph, without the text. I've inserted my watermark over top of the image.

When I got home and began sorting through my photos from the excursion, I came across the post picture. And I thought to myself, what the heck am I going to do with this? It was a pretty neat shot, but the subject was off-center, and there was a ton of white space in the upper right quarter.

I decided the picture wasn't suitable for any of my projects, and I nearly deleted it. But then I thought to myself, maybe I can fill the upper right with some text. Still, it was a picture of a post, not exactly the most fascinating of subjects.

Around that same time, Facebook was becoming inundated with internet memes and clickbait encouraging people to "share this (whatever) for no reason." People were reposting pictures of everything: sheep, cows, lunch plates, and, of course, kittens. While reading through a bunch of these viral posts, I realized–hey, I have a post of my own I can share. So I pulled the photo into Inkscape and inserted text with the intentionally awful pun, "SHARE THIS POST For No Reason."

On May 7, 2013, I uploaded the graphic to my official Facebook page, and shared it on my personal profile as well, just to see what might happen. I figured maybe I could get 10 or 20 of my friends to hit the "share" button. What actually happened was way more bizarre, and brought me face-to-face with some ugly realities about social media, and human behavior in general.

Within the first two days, the picture generated over 100 shares. Within a month, that number had risen to well over 500. It was pretty impressive, but certainly nowhere near what anyone would consider viral. Then, I got a surprise...

A few months after I first posted the image, I started receiving notes from friends all over the country.

"I saw your name and logo on an internet meme! What gives?"

I checked out the pages my friends were talking about, and–lo and behold–there was my image, plastered on the news feeds of humor sites, best-of-the-internet lists, even a weapons & tactical supply distributor. The share count was well into the thousands, but when I looked at the original posting on my Facebook page, my share count had stopped at 546. Then I realized what had happened: someone had seen the image from one of my followers, downloaded it to his own computer, and uploaded it again as original content.

That didn't bother me. After all, this was the internet. I did create the image with the intent to share it. And I did upload it to a public forum, knowing very well that it could be used, reused, misused, and abused, and there was nothing I could do to control it. Frankly, I was cool with it. Why? Because I had taken the time to put my watermark and my website address in the bottom right hand corner of the image. The more people shared it, the more people would see my name; free advertising!

And that's when it happened: I got ripped off.

A few months ago, I saw the image again on a friend's news feed. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to see my little creation was still swirling around in cyberspace. I went to the page where my friend had found the image–a well-known humor magazine–and discovered that it had been shared about a million times since they first uploaded it a year ago. I was really excited about the thought that millions of users had seen my work. But then, I noticed something that disturbed me: the editors had Photoshopped out my web address and watermark!

People borrow, steal, and tweak other people's ideas all the time. A lot of my own content has been recycled and reposted many times over, but I've always retained credit for my work, and given credit where credit is due. This was the first time I really felt, well, violated. Granted, my idea wasn't exactly original; I'm sure it's been done before and will be done again. All I lost was a trivial, meaningless piece of social media content that I was giving away to begin with. But the thought that someone would take the time to deface my work–for no purpose other than to remove my name–and recirculate it as his/her own, deeply disturbed me. The idea that someone would put forth such an effort, when it would be just as easy (and perfectly legitimate) to create his own photo and text, perplexed me. The fact that it was a PUBLISHER who did this, infuriated me.

And that's probably the most bizarre part of the entire story. What I find strange about this episode is not that my work was stolen, but rather how upset I felt about the removal of my mark from something I made, insignificant as it was. Why should I care about something so trivial? Because ultimately, the principle matters far more to me than the property itself. And that's what makes me a professional. It's bad enough that the most popular thing associated with my name is a worn out internet meme. The only thing worse than that is not having my name associated with it anymore.

There's nothing I can do about it. That's the nature of the internet; it can be an ugly place. And with such free and open access to information, it's more difficult than ever to protect one's intellectual property. Before you publish anything–to social media in particular–ask yourself, "Do I feel comfortable losing this forever?" If the answer is no, then don't post it.

In the end, I'm pleased that my creation has taken on a life of its own, and that I've left a small impression on the fabric of social media. I'm disappointed that someone would go out of his way way to steal it (that's like plagiarizing a fortune cookie), but social media content is made to be shared, and share it I did.

And years from now, I'll still be able to tell people about that thing I made that went viral.

PS: Here's the original posting as it appeared on my page in 2013...

TJ Barranger is a branding and publicity consultant in the Baltimore, Maryland area with a background in business communications and online content management. He specializes in assisting small business and non-profit clients. Agree/disagree with this article? Share your comments via e-mail: