Intellectual property is well known for ‘patent trolls’, entities whose business model is to litigiously exploit the patent system for profit. Some such trolls also target trademarks and brands, although they are less prevalent in the sector. However, there is another type of troll that has made a big impact on the IP world, as Novagraaf’s Anca Draganescu-Pinawi explains.

The story dates back to 2008, when illustrator Carlos Ramirez, then an 18-year-old American student, created and posted online a gruesome comic sketch that went on to become the ‘Trollface’ meme. In a few hours of his original post, the image had gone viral, replicated hundreds, if not thousands, of times. So far, so normal: the use and reuse of images on the internet is at the very core of the system.

This is where the story becomes interesting. Seeking to retain some ownership of his image, Ramirez decided to protect the drawing by registering it at the US Copyright Office. His registration dates back to 2010 and still appears in the register under the description: ‘A comic about the nature of internet trolling". The registration gives Ramirez the opportunity to record profits in excess of USD$100,000, e.g. through licensing, and to enforce his rights against any unscrupulous profiteer. Interviewed in 2015 by the online magazine Kotaku, Ramirez says that, when it comes to enforcing his copyright, he chooses his battles: non-commercial usage is tolerated, whereas any attempt to use the picture without permission to make a significant financial profit is not.

Should you register copyright? The US is one of the few countries to have a copyright registration system in place. There is no such system in the UK, Germany or Switzerland for example, whereas others - e.g. France and Canada - operate voluntary registration systems only. Of course, this does not mean that such images do not benefit from copyright protection. Such protection will come into being automatically for an internet meme if it fulfils the conditions for copyrightable work. Note that this is a thorny issue in countries like Switzerland however, where copyright does not extend to anything and everything.