If you were looking at humorous pictures of cats on the internet in 2012, you might remember a particularly grumpy one.
The cat was named Tardar Sauce (a gross slur, when you think about it), and her owners became very, very rich in the years that followed. There was a Grumpy Cat movie, Grumpy Cat toys, and all manner of lesser-known Grumpy Cat products, basically a miniature industry of crap made in the image of this visibly unhappy pet.
Now, six years later, that industry is mature, and it’s starting to spawn its own lawsuit. This week, Grumpy Cat Limited (the corporate entity that handles all Grumpy Cat-related licensing) won a long-standing lawsuit against Grenade Beverage for violating Grumpy-related intellectual property in the coffee business.
Grenade Beverage didn’t go completely rogue. In fact, they had an valid licensing agreement for the production of “Grumpy Cat Grumppuccinos” [sic], which seems to have been lucrative and spiritually rewarding for both parties. The problems came when Grenade Beverage decided to extend that agreement to a line of Grumpy Cat-branded ground coffee without Grumpy Cat Ltd.’s prior consent and approval, at which point the knives came out.
After more than two years of litigation, we finally got an answer on Wednesday, when the court awarded Grumpy Cat Ltd $710,000 in damages. It’s not an unreasonable ruling — this really does seem like unauthorized use — but the whole thing makes me feel a little crazy. I remember when the memes roamed free, and no one would admit to owning anything. But instead of free love and free culture, we as a society have invested an insane amount of energy into defending the intellectual property associated with Grumpy Cat. This two-year lawsuit is really just the tip of the iceberg. Think of the time spent drawing up these contracts, chartering the joint venture, even before you get to court. You have to specify exactly what the rules are for every variation of the Grump Cat image and brand, over and over, just to squeeze every last drop of licensing money out of a congenitally deformed pet.
Of course, this is just how internet culture works now, and the only smart move is to get with the program. So the next time you’re thinking of co-opting a meme, remember Grumpy Cat, and make sure you’re doing it in a respectful and legally sanctioned manner.