You Can Use This Popular Photo to Make a Meme, But Make Sure You Have a License

By Dorothy Tan, 05 Dec 2017

Created with Shutterstock Editor. Image credit: Antonio Guillem/

The stock photo that become meme gold.

Even if you aren't usually active on social media, you would still probably have come across the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ meme that has swept across the internet in a viral storm a couple of months ago.

By now, it is no secret that this immensely popular photo originated from well-known stock photo website Shutterstock, and is one in a series of pictures taken by Spanish photographer Antonio Guillem. The models featured in the image and Guillem are all taken aback by how successful the photo has become in Memeland—after all, it is incredibly difficult to predict which meme would sink into obscurity, and which would catch on and be shared thousands of times.

Like all the viral memes that came before it—and probably all those that would come after it—‘Distracted Boyfriend’ has a few traits that made it ripe for viral fame. In the words of Vox, “it is appealing because it is both extremely versatile and delightfully simple,” making it suitable visual metaphor for a wide range of subjects and situations.”

And this is also not the first time that a stock photo has become a viral meme. Before “Mario” and “Laura”, there was Hide-The-Pain-Harold and the many women who are laughing alone with their salads. This goes to show that in many a stock photo lies a potential for meme greatness.

However, even as millions laugh over various editions of the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ meme, the copyright issues surrounding the creation and sharing of memes is no laughing matter. To stay on the right side of online image use laws, you would need to know what you can and cannot do with a licensed stock image.

The Awkward Penguin meme made a huge splash when people who have used it were slapped with lawsuits and fines. Image credit: Jan Martin Will/

Are you breaking the law when you share a meme?

In the last few years, as memes—both static and animated—become a common way to make a point or express an opinion humorously on social media, there has been quite a bit of discussion about viral content and copyright laws. When it comes to the legal aspect of memes, it hardly fun and games, as the famous 2015 ‘Socially Awkward Penguin’ case.

The ‘Socially Awkward Penguin’ meme is among the most recognizable memes on the internet, and have been used to document countless funnily uncomfortable real-life situations that some of us have the misfortune to find ourselves in. However, it turned out that the penguin image used in the meme comes from a National Geographic photo that is licensed by a stock photo company. In the months and years after the meme took off, many bloggers, websites and meme-makers who used the Socially Awkward Penguin meme have been charged for copyright infringement.

What is notable about this case is that it is by no means a stand-alone incident—popular meme hub ‘Know Your Meme’ keeps a public log of its copyright takedown requests, proving that there is often copyright implications even one is sharing a meme that has been created by someone else.

The key thing you have to know about memes is that unless you use an image under a Creative Commons license or is in the public domain, you are essentially breaking the law when you post it online.

According to the photographer who created the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ picture, nobody is “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.” Therefore, to protect yourself from potential lawsuits and hefty fines, refrain from editing and publishing memes on your commercial platforms.

Better yet, you can opt for the safe route, and just download the stock photos you need to power your meme creation.

Woman laughing with salad’ is one of the earliest stock photo meme that really took off, with thousands of web users participating in its dissemination. Image credit: Serhiy Kobyakov/

Don’t just share memes - make your own viral hit.

The ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ story did not just end after the meme went viral. At the time of writing, spin-off memes and interviews with the image creators have surfaced online to give new life to the original.

A particularly creative stunt to have come out of this viral incident is how Shutterstock—the place where it all started—found a way to participate in the fun of this social media phenomenon while reminding people that there is a legal, safe and affordable way to make memes.

Stefan Hayden, a developer at Shutterstock, quickly identified the potential of the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ to let more people know about Shutterstock Editor, a free online design tool for creating posters, cards and other graphic designs that can also be applied to meme-making. He created a template of the meme that allows anyone to easily edit, download and share it.

However, instead of “stealing” the image as one may do with a screenshot, users of the template are prompted to either sign in or register for a Shutterstock account when they click the “share” or “download” buttons. According to Slate, it is hoped that “people will use this tool to properly source, license, and download the distracted boyfriend stock photo and meme to their hearts’ content.”

If you are a serial meme creator, this makes perfect sense—why risk litigation when you can download all the stock photos you need for a reasonable price?

Head over to Shutterstock to check out its image plans, and find one that would work for your budget and usage. You never know—the next big viral meme may come from you.

For your convenience, we have compiled a few very popular, and very familiar, meme favorites which you can safely download from Shutterstock:

Hide-The-Pain-Harold. Image credit: StockLite/

First World Problems Crying Woman / White Whine. Image credit: Ollyy/

Overexposed Model. Image credit: Ariwasabi/

Grumpy Cat. Image credit: JStone/

[Images via Shutterstock]

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