Getty Images charged a blog approximately $1159.70 Cdn for the use of a popular internet meme, the Socially Awkward Penguin, and asked the blog to not reveal that request. In defiance, the blog posted their emails online. 

Back in April, the American stock photo agency sent a letter to the German blog Geek Sisters to pay licence fees of about 785 euros. It noted that the image of a penguin in mid-step, the animal at the centre of the Socially Awkward Penguin meme, was taken by George F. Mobley for National Geographic and that its licensing is managed by Getty Images. 

(Full disclosure: CBC News subscribes to Getty Images and uses their images.)

According to the website Know Your Meme, Socially Awkward Penguin is a six-year-old image macro — an image with a consistent centre image but replaceable text. The Adeli penguin looking to the left with a blue background is the Socially Awkward Penguin.

"The text typically narrates uncomfortable life situations, highlighting an exceptionally clumsy or inelegant response," Know Your Meme says.

A penguin looking to the right with a red background is its variant twin, the Socially Awesome Penguin.  

Geek Sisters had originally posted the images in a blog post around 2012. Getty asked them to pay roughly double the fees for hosting one of their images on a commercial blog for three years. The blog then had to continue payment or take the post down. 

Awkward Penguin born in 2009

"The Awkward Penguin is not just a random image we stole from Getty's database, but one of the most well-known  internet memes," wrote getDigital, a nerd-themed clothing website which runs Geek Sisters, in a blog post.

"Therefore the question arises why obviously no one in the whole internet knows that the image right of this penguin are property of a picture agency that sends out bills for the usage of this image."

Socially Awkward Penguin began its life on the 4chan image board in May 2009, Know Your Meme says. A user copied the image from a post about the Adeli penguin on the National Geographic's Wild Animals website. 

Regardless of their complaints, getDigital believed the request was legitimate, so the company paid the fee and took down the post.

But afterwards they received another message from the stock photo agency, saying that they were obligated to stay silent about the ordeal. getDigital disagreed and posted Getty's emails on their website.

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The caption on getDigital's website reads "Sorry Getty!" below this public domain version of the popular internet meme. (GetDigital)

"We informed Getty that we would agree on everything (including the payment) except for the confidential treatment," the company wrote. "Apparently this is not acceptable for Getty as they repeated their answer saying that in this case an agreement would not be possible and they would hand it over to their lawyers."

Protecting photographers

Meanwhile, Getty Images believes that their actions protects photographers who have their photos widely distributed online. The agency told the Daily Dot it has "pursued certain uses of the Getty Images photo in question in instances where it has been used without a licence.

"Getty Images has an immense responsibility to the 200,000-plus artists we work with to ensure that their work is properly licensed when used by commercial entities. Bear in mind that many artists themselves are small businesses, and are entitled to be paid for their work," a spokesperson told the Daily Dot. 

The agency recommends that if people are looking to share pictures that contain their imagery, they should use the company's image-embed tool. 

getDigital has proposed an alternative solution. On their website they created their own public domain versions of the meme, in awkward, awesome and hybrid variants. 

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GetDigital added "Sharing is caring :)" beneath this public domain version of Socially Awesome Penguin. (GetDigital)