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Business Observer Friday, May 18, 2012 8 years ago

When memes attack

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Richard Gitlin was photographed for a Business Review article in 2010 and soon became a meme.

When Richard Gitlin, an accomplished entrepreneur and professor in the College of Engineering at the University of South Florida, invented DSL he probably didn't anticipate the changes it would bring.

The technology, digital subscriber line, was a revolutionizing force in the telecommunications industry and one of the first ways to transmit the Internet.

But the innovation also bred hackers and pranksters that use the Internet for less than scrupulous means — which Gitlin learned firsthand.

Gitlin was photographed for a Business Review article in 2010, which was put online. (See Business Review, Jan. 8 2010.)

The picture, which is innocuous, became a viral caption meme. Parodying the epithet of the hardnosed engineering professor, anonymous jokers posted millions of copies of the picture captioned he'd likely say on various websites. For example, one iteration of the meme has white block text that says “Fire drill during class” on the top of the picture and “teaches outside,” on the bottom.

However silly it is, Gitlin's situation illustrates problems with Internet reputation that could affect any executive. In fact, pictures in any leadership biography section on any company websites are vulnerable — with little legal recourse.

Julee Milham, a solo attorney specializing in intellectual property based in St. Pete Beach, says fighting this type of virtual copyright theft has been construed as a violation of freedom of speech.

For example, a Los Angeles woman sued Universal Music Group in 2007 for lobbying YouTube to remove a clip she posted on the video-sharing website. The Universal-owned Prince song “Let's Get Crazy,” plays in the video of her toddler dancing. The woman won the suit, setting a precedent that's hard to overcome.

Milham says it's important to register copyrights for digitally shared photos, but they will always be vulnerable to duplication.

“Just when a copyright owner thinks they're one step ahead of the replicators, they find a new way to pirate intellectual property,” Milham explains.

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