Meme Thieves of Instagram

Memes are life. No, seriously.

To most people they’re just funny, shareable internet images. But for their creators, memes are a livelihood. And with the biggest meme accounts stealing content, stolen memes are serious business.

FuckJerry is among the most famous meme accounts on Instagram, boasting 13.5 million followers. Elliot Tebele created the page back in 2011, and along with his team, built it into a social media brand. The account posts several images daily, and makes upwards of $30,000 per sponsored post due to its enormous follower account.

There’s a lot of money at stake. In a digital world of endless content, recognition is king. And FuckJerry’s success through meme thievery deprives real creators of both profitability and creative drive.

“People lose inspiration when their content gets stolen,” says comedy writer Eric Curtin.

Curtin is the man behind @dubstep4dads, a Twitter account with more than 285,000 followers. He parlayed his social media humor into a writing job with Funny or Die. But along the way he, like many content creators, saw his jokes stolen by bigger accounts without credit.

“When you see someone like FuckJerry and you know what they’re doing and how much money they’re making, it’s easy to ask, ‘why am I doing this? I’m just making money for someone else,’” Curtin says.

The topic bubbled up after FuckJerry won the Shorty Award for “Best Parody/Meme Account.” Curtin was himself nominated in a different account, but was dismayed by FuckJerry’s win. He expressed his frustration with a simple tweet.

Content creators across social media share Curtin’s sentiment. FuckJerry not only takes content from others, but does so without crediting the creators.

“It’s irritating because these content aggregators, all they do is take,” Onion contributor Maura Quint says. “They don’t create or produce anything.”

Quint was the first comedy writer to loudly blow the whistle on Josh Ostrovsky, better known as The Fat Jew, a content aggregator similar to FuckJerry. Ostrovsky built an immense Instagram following through stolen and uncredited memes, signed with talent agency CAA, and developed a pilot with Comedy Central before the network ultimately dropped it.

FuckJerry hasn’t taken his talents to television, but has been profiled on several major websites and featured on ABC News in New York. Below, you can see how uncomfortable the FuckJerry team is while making a meme during the segment.

It’s no wonder they steal jokes—the meme they come up with is horrible.

Joke theft has been a problem in the comedy world for years. Several major stand up comedians like Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook have faced accusations of stealing bits. But while stealing jokes isn’t new, it’s taking on a new form in the digital era.

“Everything with the online world is so new,” Quint says. “It’s still like the wild west. We’re still trying to figure out what the rules are. We’ve accepted that theft is not okay in society; we’re still waiting to see that make its way to the digital world.”

Major meme accounts thrive on user ignorance. For the most part, people scrolling their social media feeds don’t care who made a meme. They follow accounts like FuckJerry for quick laughs. If they don’t credit memes, followers will instinctively believe the account they saw it on created it, which benefits the account. Curators of large content aggregation accounts understand this, and because of it have no motivation to change.

“They have the power to change it by crediting people,” Curtin says of large accounts. That’s all creators like him need. A mention or page link from an account like FuckJerry could bump a small account’s follower total by hundreds or thousands. It’s happened to Curtin himself, and it’s why he doesn’t mind when accounts use his work with proper credit.

“I recently had a Instagram account reach out to me asking if it was cool to post my content if they linked to my page,” Curtin says. “They didn’t even have to ask me that. As long as I’m credited and linked to in some way, it’s beneficial for me.”

But without motivation to change or consequences for theft, the trend will likely continue. Content aggregators like FuckJerry will continue posting memes and crediting people when they feel like it.

Still, Quint believes that as the digital space evolves, the problem will change along with it. Through pop culture or legal channels, the internet will address the problem.

“There are many ways that it can enter the public consciousness” she says. “I believe it will change, and I don’t think there’s any reason to give up hope that it won’t.”