To get a sense of how messy copyright protection has become in the age of internet meme-dom, start by traveling back in time with me to last year, right after a very famous cat was e-born.
It’s April 2011, and it's been a few weeks since you checked into YouTube. Someone shows you a video of a frizzy-haired girl wearing pointed cat ears and standing in front of a hand-painted rippling rainbow that looks like the backdrop to an elementary school musical. The girl is playing a song on the violin that sounds a little like “Cotton Eye Joe” whilst staring intently just off-screen, wearing a mysteriously wry, self-satisfied smile, a bit like the Mona Lisa’s. The video doesn’t change. It’s just the same shot, the same smile, the same tune on the violin, on and on for two minutes and 15 seconds.
Your first question would probably be, “Why the hell am I watching this?” Your second question might be, "Why have half a million other people also watched it?"
The video, entitled “Nyan VIOLIN,” was a mimetic spin-off of another video released just a few weeks earlier called “Nyan Cat”—a 3:37 loop of 8-bit animation depicting a cat with the body of a Pop Tart, flying through space with a rainbow streaming out of its ass. Since it was posted on April 5, 2011, it has earned more than 89 million views, and set into motion one chapter in a long and sticky saga about the visual jokes, references, and ideas that fly around the internet--and the laws designed to stop them dead in their rainbow-colored tracks.