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Why is a Once-Prominent Atheist Selling a Meme He Doesn't Own?
David Silverman's NFT listing raises a number of ethical questions.
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UPDATE (Jan. 14): OpenSea removed the listing from its marketplace after this article was published.
I can’t explain why people are rushing to purchase NFTs (non-fungible tokens). It’s like buying digital baseball cards with cryptocurrency… even though everyone has access to the exact same digital file. NFTs have been described as everything from a new gold rush to a scam targeting rich tech people. But, hey, if that’s how you want to waste your money, that’s on you.
NFTs have been very lucrative for some digital artists while screwing over other ones. But the point I want to make here is that they’ve sometimes benefitted the subjects of popular memes. For example, last year, Laina Morris (a.k.a. Overly Attached Girlfriend) sold an NFT of her meme for roughly $411,000. Good for her. That meme originated from a video she created, and the sale may have represented the first time she directly earned money from the image of her that’s been all over the internet. (What did the buyer actually get for the purchase? Who knows. Bragging rights, I guess. Welcome to the world of NFTs.)
It’s no wonder then that, more than two weeks ago, former American Atheists president David Silverman jumped on the same bandwagon.
The origins of his meme
In 2011, Silverman appeared on FOX News’ The O’Reilly Factor to discuss American Atheists’ new provocative billboards. Their conversation quickly descended into a short debate on God’s existence, and Bill O’Reilly defended religion by saying there must be something supernatural out there because how else could anyone explain how the tides worked?
“Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that,” O’Reilly argued… even though there’s a very clear scientific answer to that question.
Silverman reacted to that comment, around the 2:00 mark in the video below, with a face that silently screamed, “Seriously?!”
A couple of weeks after that appearance, Reddit user @where_god_now immortalized that face with an illustration.
The rest, of course, is internet history. That image began appearing everywhere, in different forms, in countless online threads and comics, whenever someone wanted to shout What the hell are you talking about?! in response to an idiotic comment.
American Atheists even embraced Silverman’s newfound notoriety that summer by putting a sticker of the meme on the front doors of their headquarters.
All of that happened in 2011. In the years since then, as many readers are well aware, Silverman lost his job at American Atheists. But you’ll still see that image popping up everywhere because, like all memes, it took on a life of its own that’s relatively independent of its origin story. There’s a good chance most people who encounter it online these days don’t know who Silverman is or where the image came from.
So imagine you’re Dave Silverman.
You’ve always embraced the meme but your professional reputation has taken a hit. You also know that memes are usually unaffected by the real life antics of their subjects. You’d like to cash in on your notoriety.
Turns out there’s a way to do that now: Just sell the NFT.
On December 27, Silverman announced that he was selling the image on the NFT marketplace OpenSea.
The problem with the NFT
Will anyone buy the meme? I don’t know. Don’t ask me why anyone would buy an NFT at all. But the obvious problem here is that Silverman is selling something he didn’t create and doesn’t own.
Yes, he’s the subject of the meme, but he’s not the person who drew the artwork. If this NFT gets sold, what right does Silverman have to profit off of someone else’s creation?
Yesterday, I got in touch with Reddit user @where_god_now, the guy who drew the original illustration, and asked him if he was aware of the listing.
He was not.
I’m not using his real name at his request, but he told me he worried something like this would happen. So back in May, when the NFT craze first began, he finally had the image copyrighted — after more than 10 years of just leaving it alone. (I was able to confirm that the image is indeed copyrighted under his name.)
He also explained to me why he created it:
I developed the meme back when I was really into r/atheism and I wanted to give something to the community that expresses the bewilderment an atheist feels when confronted by the sheer stupidity of some religious claims or ways of thought.
It was one of the first things I made with photoshop and I was really proud of it.
@where_god_now has asked OpenSea to take down the listing. He also hopes all this gets sorted out soon “with no bad feelings.”
I’ll say once again that no one has bid on the meme yet — and it’s hard to imagine anyone coughing up more than $6,500 for the ability to claim ownership of an image all of us can already use and manipulate any way we’d like.
But it’s also hard to imagine Silverman wasn’t aware of any of this. In his previous life, he was someone whose biography and profiles routinely touted his “74 patents related to telecommunications infrastructure.” So he knows damn well the importance of claiming ownership for something you create; patents exist so others can’t unfairly profit from your work.
Being the subject of a meme doesn’t make you the owner of it. It’s not that complicated.