Willie Nelson meme on Facebook was not clearly fair use

Plaintiff photographer sued website publisher (who also maintained a Facebook page to go with the website) for copyright infringement. Plaintiff claimed defendant infringed plaintiff’s copyright in a photo plaintiff took of Willie Nelson when defendant posted the photo on Facebook with a cultural message superimposed over the photo in the form of a meme.

Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, on the basis of fair use. The court denied the motion, applying the fair use test set forth in 17 USC 109.

The court’s holding turned essentially on the idea that there were not yet enough facts in the record to support a finding of fair use, and that such a determination should be made later in the case, e.g., at summary judgment. For example, plaintiff had argued that defendant’s purpose was not transformative, and that it was in fact the same purpose plaintiff had for publishing the photo, namely, to identify Willie Nelson.

Philpot v. Alternet Media, Inc., 2018 WL 6267876 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 30, 2018)