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Who Gets Credit When a Meme Becomes a Movie?

Netflix is reportedly making an original movie starring Rihanna and Lupita Nyong'o, inspired by Twitter and Tumblr posts. But will the social media authors get paid?

by Olivia Craighead
May 24 2017, 5:00pm

Image: Pascal Le Segretain / Staff / Getty Images

In the seminal 2002 film Big Fat Liar, Frankie Muinz' character leaves an essay in the backseat of a movie producer's (Paul Giamatti) car. Giamatti's character uses the essay as the basis for his comeback film, and Muinz travels to Los Angeles to get the credit he deserves and also have a long Getting Ready montage with Amanda Bynes' character in a prop warehouse.

When this movie inevitably gets remade starring a Musical.ly star and Siri, the plot will probably hinge on a social media post instead of an essay. Actually, it will probably look a lot like what's happening with this Rihanna/Lupita Nyong'o project that is reportedly in the works at Netflix (Netflix did respond to Motherboard's request for comment).

For the blessedly ignorant, in April, a Twitter user whose handle is @1800SADGAL (a clutch get, by the way) quote tweeted a tweet that included a picture of Rihanna and Lupita Nyong'o at Paris Fashion Week in 2014. In her tweet, she wrote, "Rihanna looks like she scams rich white men and lupita is the computer smart best friend that helps plan the scans [sic]." To her credit, that is what they look like.

The tweet went viral almost immediately, enough so that Rihanna and Nyong'o tweeted out their support of the project. Eventually, someone suggested that Ava Duvernay direct the film and Issa Rae write it. Both women seemed enthusiastic about the prospect, with Rae going so far as to attach the universal sign of internet agreeance: a funny GIF of a cat.

People were quick to note that @1800SADGAL (who did not respond to a request for interview), should probably receive some kind of "Story By" credit, which is given to people who come up with the idea for a screenplay but don't actually write it. People were quicker to point out that a very similar post to @1800SADGAL's tweet actually appeared earlier on on Tumblr in 2015, when a user called elizabitchtaylor, real name Roxy, posted the same picture of the women with the caption "They look like they're in a heist movie with Rihanna as the tough-as-nails leader/master thief and Lupita as the genius computer hacker." Roxy said that she could not make any statements at this time.

So, who gets paid? If this movie comes to fruition, there would surely be tens of millions of dollars at stake. If a movie gets made off of something you posted on the internet as a joke, do you get a cut?

"The answer is, it depends," says entertainment lawyer Mark S. Lee, a partner Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Los Angeles who specializes in intellectual property. "As a matter of copyright law, the person who creates something like a tweet normally owns the copyright in that tweet. Owning the copyright doesn't mean they own the ideas in the tweet, but it does mean they own how those ideas are expressed."

In copyright law, there is a difference between an idea and an expression of an idea. When I asked Mark to explain that a little more, he said that, basically, anyone can write a sci-fi movie about a teenager who discovers that it's his destiny to save the universe, but you can't call that movie Star Wars.

The case becomes more complicated by the fact that people seem to think that the tweet was derived from a Tumblr post, which @1800SADGAL denies. In a thread posted May 22, @1800SADGAL says she had no prior knowledge of Roxy's post, and even posts a DM conversation between the two girls wherein they clear the air.

In one message, @1800SADGAL tells Roxy, "if anything is to happen because of this post you would definitely be included. It's only right!"

According to Mark, the law doesn't see it that way. "My initial impression would be that the person who posted that tweet would probably have a difficult time persuading a court or jury that they should be compensated. The copyright, to the extent that the tweet contains copyrightable expression, would probably not be used in a movie, and there was no agreement for compensation in using the ideas it contains, if it was even original to them."

So there doesn't seem to be much hope on the horizon for people who inadvertently create desirable content. If anything, social media companies might try to take away any ownership you do have over your own content. Mark says that the issue is coming up more and more, and that "sites traditionally acknowledge that people who post the content own the copyright in it, but a few have tried to change their terms of use to provide that they own the content." Twitter, for the record, says in its Terms of Service that "you own your Content (and your photos and videos are part of the Content)."

The moral of this story is that all of your tweets are up for grabs. If you simply must release a multi-million dollar idea into the lifesucking void that is Twitter, you better be ready to settle for a couple thousand retweets and maybe more followers.

For what it's worth, I'll say right now that the movie where @1800SADGAL scams Netflix for her money and Roxy is the hacker who plans the scams is absolutely my idea, and I expect points on the back end.

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Rihanna
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Issa Rae