Does Jackie Weaver have the authority ... to control her image?
When a Zoom meeting at Handforth Parish Council went viral in February 2021 it triggered two themes that I have a strong professional and personal interest in: (i) an individual's right to protect their image, reputation and privacy but, more importantly and interesting in my view, (ii) our humanity in the social media age and the human impact on everyone involved.
We all enjoyed the absurdity and apparent idiocy of the artists formerly known as Handforth PC Clerk and Aled's iPad and the calmness with which Jackie Weaver booted one of these errant chaps out of the Zoom chat. But one thing we all forgot, and so often do when things go viral, is that there was a set of complex human beings behind the drama.
Jackie Weaver comes across loudly and proudly as the heroine of the piece but she has also completely lost control of her image. Screenshots of her adorned memes, news articles and even the BBC news. Google searches for Jackie's name, which once would have thrown up very limited information about the Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils and instead pointed you in the direction of an Australian actress who had a part in the Silver Linings Playbook, are now dominated by news stories and comment pieces about our Zoom legend. There's no going back. Jackie had no choice in it. She, and her fellow Zoom attendees, were part of our entertainment and she is now forever known for that.
The way Jackie responded to this dramatic turn of events is heartwarming. She's clearly embraced it: with a brand new verified Twitter account and she is using her new platform to promote more diversity in local government. How Aled's iPad is faring is less clear.
There isn't much she could have done. She was appearing at a public hearing (no reasonable expectation of privacy then), she didn't own the copyright in the video (and local government meetings are made available to the public in any event) and provided no-one has harassed or defamed her she hasn't got any legal standing to assert her rights and take ownership. It does seem like something of an injustice though that she's had her life turned upside down and she hasn't had the opportunity to financially benefit from it. She's become a star but not been paid for it. I do hope rumours of her and Strictly Come Dancing are true. That would be a well-deserved payday.
But her clash with Aled's iPad should lead us to ask this question to ourselves - do we consider the human stories and real world impact behind the memes and viral sensations we enjoy and share? The comparable story that comes to mind is the "four lads in jeans" who would later become better known for their unwitting deepfake rendition of the Wellerman.
Long before Vonstrenginho turned the picture of the four lads into a deepfake which would go on to sweep through social media, the web and the television news the picture of the lads had already been turned into a series of cruel memes portraying them as the kind of boorish, laddish, ignoramuses that are high on opinions of themselves and low on IQ. No-one knew if that was a fair analysis of the boys (later evidence suggests not) and no-one really cared. Least of all no-one seemed to care that the lampooning of these boys and turning them into the poster boys for casual racism would have a real world impact on the real people in the photograph.
Like Jackie Weaver the boys have now taken full advantage of their notoriety and are using it for good (such as campaigning against trolling and the awful impact that came from their own experiences) and (quite rightly) are getting some financial benefit from having their entire image (and lives) taken out of their hands by working with publications such as the Lad Bible (of course!). But I wonder, what if Vonstrenginho hadn't come around and produced a version of the meme which was so off the wall, positive and fun? Not only did it dramatically and positively impact the trajectory of the music career of Nathan Evans (the singer of the Wellerman) but it also transformed the meme from something cruel which the lads could only suffer from and not benefit from, into something uplifting and something which they could take some ownership of and feel the benefits of.
Many meme victims aren't as lucky.
When there is a picture of you floating around on the internet and everyone is enjoying it and you are receiving no benefit there's a temptation to consider your legal rights. In the darker days of the meme about the lads I would have been tempted to advise them to assert their ownership of the photograph (i.e. the copyright in it) and to demand takedown or a licence fee from anyone using it. There's one problem though ....... they didn't take the photograph.
The person that owns the copyright in a photograph, unless there is a contract saying something different, is the person that took it. It's a well established principle perhaps most entertainingly described in a copyright dispute between a photographer and a crested macaque after the monkey had pressed the button to take a selfie.
The court held that the photographer didn't own the copyright because he didn't take the photo. Unluckily for the macaque, another court held that monkeys can't have intellectual property rights, so the photo is free to use.
When asked by the Lad Bible about it, Jamie Phillips said: "we asked a random to take a photo of us". So there's a random out there somewhere who owns some very valuable intellectual property rights. But in many circumstances, memes stolen directly from photos on someone's social media are not completely fair game. If someone is using photos that you, or your friends and family, took just to take the p___ out of you then you've got the right to fightback and reclaim your rights in the photograph.
So, what do we learn from Aled's iPad, four lads in tight jeans and a macaque? Well, first, we are taking calculated risks every time we make photos, videos and anything else available online. If we don't want to end up as a meme then we should adopt some risk averse behaviours - but that doesn't mean that we should take the approach that other people's photos, videos and information are free for us to use at our will. Everyone has a right to protect their intellectual property and privacy and there are ways to fight back and protect ourselves if we start going viral. But most importantly, be kind and remember your humanity. Behind every meme is context, a series of stories, and some human beings.
And if you now can't get the Wellerman out of your head now, go and enjoy it on Nathan Evans' official YouTube channel and give him the ad revenue that his hard work and skill deserves: