In 2010, a Winnipeg Free Press photographer covered a Guns N’ Roses concert, snapping photos of Axl Rose. The images ran with the paper’s favorable review of the show. The photos caught the attention of Gauntlet, a heavy metal news site that republished the photos under a very different headline: “OMFG Axl Rose is fat.”
This was the beginning of “Fat Axl,” a mean Internet meme that involves rewriting Guns N’ Roses songs to mock the appearance of 2010s-era Rose. And it appears that Rose has had enough of it: Google received a whole bunch of DMCA copyright notices over the past week requesting the removal of one of those images from the Internet.
The notices, filed on behalf of Rose, target several cropped versions of the original unflattering photo, along with others that have been captioned in keeping with the spirit of the meme. One image is captioned, “take me down to the bakery city/where the pies have cream and the cakes are tasty.”
“Copyright image of Axl Rose,” the notices, filed by Web Sheriff on behalf of Rose read. “Please note that no permission has been granted to publish the copyright image so we cannot direct you to an authorized example of it.” The complaints are available for public viewing in the Lumen database.
It is very understandable why Rose would not like the “Fat Axl” meme, which exists entirely to mock his weight. The macros, using the Winnipeg Free Press photos and a couple of other alternatives, have circulated on the Internet for years. Uproxx turned a version of the meme into an article in 2011, following the lead of a Buzzfeed community post.
But there might be a big problem with Rose’s copyright-based strategy in this case: As TorrentFreak noted in its report on the complaints, the question of who actually owns the copyright to these photos is in dispute.
Winnipeg Free Press photographer Boris Minkevich took the original photos that were subject to the recent copyright notices. Minkevich sent our request for comment along to the paper’s photography and multimedia director Mike Aporius, who said the Winnipeg Free Press owns the editorial copyright for the photos, and hasn’t approved any third-party usage.
As for the meme itself? “We were only recently made aware of these memes,” Aporius continued, “and while we ethically don’t approve, viral media is impossible for us to regulate. Welcome to the jungle.”
WebSheriff, on behalf of Rose, had a different story. The company released a statement to TorrentFreak arguing that Rose owned the copyright to the photos, because “all official / accredited photographers at [Axl Rose] shows sign-off on ‘Photography Permission’ contracts / ‘Photographic Release’ agreements which A. specify and limit the manner in which the photos can be exploited and B. transfer copyright ownership in such photos to AR’s relevant service company.”
Minkevich told Torrentfreak that he couldn’t remember what, exactly, he signed, if anything, before photographing the 2010 show.
Rose is hardly the only music star to try to control which images of his performances end up online. Last summer, the Washington City Paper published the restrictive contract the Foo Fighters asked their photographer to sign to take pictures at their show. And three years ago, Beyoncé’s publicist famously wrote Buzzfeed to request the removal of several “unflattering” photos of the superstar. (Buzzfeed had written that Beyoncé looked “fierce” in them.”)
The Internet has a term for this sort of thing: the Streisand Effect, named for an incident in 2003 where Barbara Streisand tried — and disastrously failed — to erase an aerial picture of her mansion from an online database used by researchers who study coastal erosion. Her efforts became a news story, giving the photo a lot more attention than it would have received on its own.
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