Many a meme has metastasized from a piece of stock photography. You’ve surely seen the latest: that cheesy photo of a distracted boyfriend looking at a woman who is not his girlfriend. It achieved Twitter ubiquity last week, and it’s only the latest in the genre: Before we met this unhappy throuple, we had hide-the-pain Harold and women laughing alone with salad, among countless other examples in which social media users seized upon a strange or uncanny quality in a stock photo and exploited it, in infinite variations, for their humor and entertainment.
Perhaps you first encountered the distracted boyfriend photo in its Henry VIII iteration, or maybe it was some Bernie-tinged political commentary that caught your eye. Like the best memes, grass-is-greener guy can be applied to any number of situations. The people become an easy metaphor for all number of societal disillusionments in our age of distraction, and through the use of labels, complex situations are reduced down to simple explanations: Everything was going well with X, the memes say, until Y came along. X and Y can be something as straightforward as people and dogs, or they can refer something a bit more insider-y:
Memes represent a certain kind of internet anarchy—a free-love vision of the web in which users spread and elaborate endlessly without care for who owns the original material. But stock photos don’t just appear out of thin air: Someone put time and effort into creating them, and they exist to make money through their use. The Spain-based photographer behind the distracted boyfriend photos, Antonio Guillem, released a statement to reporters this week about the financial impact of his photo’s sudden virality: There really isn’t much of one. He sells 1,600 photos a day and considers himself one of the top stock-photo sellers in the world. But “[t]he sales that are related with the memes are probably a 0.00000% of our monthly revenue. It’s not relevant,” he wrote. Still, he looked relatively charitably upon the meme’s spread. “It’s not allowed to use any image without purchasing the proper license in any possible way, so each one of the people that use the images without the license are doing it illegally,” he wrote, before adding, “this is not the thing that really worries us, as they are just a group of people doing it in good faith.”
Guillem’s generosity notwithstanding, this is America: If there’s an opportunity to make money, someone’s going to find it. One stock agency’s handling of the meme provides a useful case study for the murky area of what to do when something you own goes viral. Stefan Hayden is a developer at Shutterstock, which holds licensing rights to Guillem’s photos. (Not exclusively, though: The photos are also are available through several other houses as well.) And Hayden is something of a meme connoisseur: He’s a member of a recreational Slack group called the Private Meme Club. “It’s a great place of what has previously been called ‘top memers’ where we sort of trade off a lot of Twitter posts and stuff,” he said.
When Hayden came across distracted boyfriend in the regular course of his meme travels last week, he didn’t initially recognize it as a Shutterstock photo, just a damn good meme. “When you’re building a poster or something that you might use for advertising, usually you want not a subtle photo, but you want a photo that really gets your point across, and that’s the thing that makes this photo so good,” he said. “It’s an exaggerated life moment.” Stock photography’s penchant for capturing these exaggerated life moments—these are images, after all, that lots of people need to find lots of uses for—is key to what makes it such a consistently strong source of meme fodder.
But when a colleague alerted Hayden that the meme was based on a photo in his company’s arsenal, he got to thinking of the tool he spends most of his time on at work. “I work on Shutterstock Editor, which is an online design tool for creating kind of templates and posters and birthday cards and stuff like that,” he said. “I realized with Editor, I could make this template really easily, really just like a couple of sheets and some text and then send out a link that would let other people edit it really easily and download their own versions.” And that’s exactly what he did, tweeting the link on his personal Twitter account so that anyone could plug in language for the distracted-guy meme.
Rather than chiding Hayden for participating in an activity that runs counter to its revenue model, Shutterstock embraced his template, with its publicity department touting it and even offering to connect me with Hayden for an interview. The idea behind the template is that instead of participating in the gray area of editing and posting a photo one doesn’t have the rights to, people will use this tool to properly source, license, and download the distracted boyfriend stock photo and meme to their hearts’ content. When you click the tool’s “share” or “download” buttons, it prompts you to either sign in or register for a Shutterstock account, ignoring the existence and widespread use of screenshot technology in a way that’s almost cute. “Getting people to download the image is because what we want is for our photographers, contributors to get paid,” Hayden said. “A lot of different meme websites that exist, they never talk about the legal part—the licenses—but on Shutterstock it’s just kind of baked into how we work.” Shutterstock spokesman Danny Groner added, “Just because something’s going viral doesn’t mean that it now belongs to everybody.”
It’s a little unclear whether Hayden and Shutterstock expect individual social media users to pay to license the photo; Shutterstock is aimed more at companies that pay for bulk subscriptions to the service and access to its stockpile of images. For the average lone social-media user, the rules remain fuzzy: “We don’t have an official policy on when we do or don’t pursue somebody who has taken an image from the internet if it happens to be ours … it would get reported to our IP team, and then they would investigate each report on a case by case basis,” Hayden said. Still, Hayden’s quick thinking was a way for the service to assert its place in the stock photo and meme universe when one of its works was having a moment in the spotlight. “I think this is one of the first times that we’ve identified a meme, quickly found the photo that was licensed for our website, and kind of been able to use our internal editor design tool to promote the legal use of a meme, to let businesses use this meme but also feel like protected when they’re using it,” Hayden said.
Ultimately, “Shutterstock’s going to be supportive of any content creation using, especially using Shutterstock’s own image library, that’s going to bring more users in,” he added.
Hayden and Shutterstock declined to share any figures of how many people had actually downloaded and licensed the photo post-virality or used the template Hayden had created. It’s still very early days for the company’s official participation in the meme economy, after all. “Unfortunately, Shutterstock has yet to have a professional meme creator” on staff, but if this becomes a viable area for the company, it’s a role he “will lobby for very, very soon,” Hayden joked.
Then again, perhaps there’s only so much money to be made from memes. “Our top-selling images get more than 5,000 to 6,000 sales a year, while the meme photo is sold around 700 times a year,” Guillem says. That was before the wave of virality, though. Time will tell if the photo remains an objection of fascination—or simply the photographic equivalent of a spurned girlfriend.