Grumpy Cat went to court and won big. After landing a lucrative deal with Grenade Beverage company for a "Grumpy Cat Grumpuccino" iced coffee line in 2013, the cat’s owner Morristown, Arizona Tabatha Bundesen, who created Grumpy Cat Limited after her pet went viral in 2012, filed suit in 2015, alleging that Grenade had run afoul of their deal by using the Grumpy Cat image on a roasted coffee line and tee-shirts, neither of which were part of the original terms.
The cat owner’s lawsuit – which centered on breach of contract, and copyright and trademark infringement claims – was swiftly followed up with a countersuit from Grenade, claiming Grumpy Cat did not promote the brand as outlined in the parties’ deal.
Last week, an eight-person jury in Santa Ana, California, awarded the company behind the famously scowling feline $710,001 in damages, holding that Grenade failed to abide by the parties’ licensing agreement.
But the case is bigger than a simple he said-she said contract dispute. According to Grumpy Cat’s counsel, David B. Jonelis of Lavely & Singer, The case sets an “important precedent when you have something like a meme online. It’s the first verdict ever rendered in favor of a viral meme. Memes have rights too.”
Rise of the Meme Suits
This is, of course, not the first time a meme has spawned litigation. Ludacris was slapped with a copyright infringement lawsuit after he posted another party’s meme on his Instagram account - and you could be next. According to LittleThings, Inc.’s complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York this past summer, musician/actor Ludacris is on the hook for using its illustration of a woman applying deodorant to the underside of her breasts without authorization to do so.
According to New York-based digital media site LittleThings’ complaint, “Defendant's cyber-piracy and infringing activities display a conscious disregard for Little Things’ intellectual property rights and are calculated to, and actually do, deceive consumers about the source and quality of the respective products and services offered by Little Things and defendant.”
LittleThings alleges that Ludacris was “unjustly enriched” as a result of the copyright-protected meme and as a result, “LittleThings seeks a worldwide accounting and disgorgement of all ill-gotten gains and profits resulting from defendant's inequitable activities.”
Before that, Charles Schmidt and Christopher Orlando Torres, the respective creators of the Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat memes, filed suit in 2013 against 5th Cell Media and Warner Bros. for copyright infringement and trademark infringement. Turns out, the defendants used the cat characters without the creators’ permission in video game, Scribblenauts, and its sequels.
The case was settled out of court, with Warner Bros. officially licensing the two cat memes for use in the games (aka paying the creators a monetary sum in exchange for permission to use the memes in its video games).