Mina Lioness was shaking for hours after Lizzo shocked her — and the music industry — by giving her a songwriting credit on her smash hit “Truth Hurts.” In 2017, Lioness tweeted the phrase, “I did a DNA test and found out I’m 100% that bitch,” which spawned a viral meme that Lizzo incorporated into the first line of her song. The decision caused some head-scratching about whether tweets and internet memes are copyright-protected.
A work protected by U.S. copyright law must be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression and have sufficient creativity and originality,” according to University of California, Los Angeles School of Law professor David Nimmer. Single words or phrases are not considered sufficiently creative.
“It can’t just be a recitation of some facts or names unless it also contains some commentary about those facts,” says William Hochberg, a partner at Greenberg Glusker. Tweets that meet the copyright threshold are automatically protected when users post them. (Twitter’s terms of service also specifies that all users maintain the rights to their content.)
In order to file a copyright infringement lawsuit, though, the work must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. But that can be done immediately before filing a lawsuit, says Nimmer.
Tweets aren’t the only short works that are protected. The Copyright Office has already issued rulings finding concise works, from song lyrics to a 27-word blog post, are copyrightable.
“Literary work does not mean Poetry Quarterly is going to publish it,” says Nimmer. “It means it is composed of alphanumeric texts and has enough heft to it, and [Lioness’ tweet] does.”