joke theft

Was Grumpy Cat’s Fame Built on a Stolen Joke?

Shot; chaser. Photo: Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly; Art by Kate Beaton; Grumpy Cat Limited

Way back in 2011, cartoonist Kate Beaton published a series of short comic strips on her website. In them, she humorously chronicled the rise and fall of the so-called Second Mexican Empire of Maximilian I, who was vigorously opposed by democracy-loving national hero Benito Juárez. Beaton’s comics had already gained a fair degree of online notoriety for their deliciously funny takes on history and literature in accessible internet-ese. However, as it turned out, the internet would jilt her when it came to this particular story.

Just a few months later, a cat was born. It had a disease that caused its face to be trapped in a peculiar and perpetual grimace. The cat’s owner was named Tabatha Bundesen and her brother, Bryan, posted an image of said cat to Reddit on September 23, 2012. Not too long after that, someone (the person subsequently deleted their account, leaving their name a mystery to internet users until this very day) added text onto the image: above the cat, it read “I HAD FUN ONCE,” below, “IT WAS AWFUL.” That modification went enormously viral in a short period of time. The average redditor likely had no idea that this phraseology was almost certainly stolen from a panel in Beaton’s series on Maximilian and Juárez, in which the latter says, “I had fun once and it was awful.” Although Bryan and Tabatha were not responsible for that initial meme-ification of the cat (officially named “Tardar Sauce,” although it’s suspected that this was a retcon of an original, entirely offensive name of “Tard”), the Bundesens were happy to profit off of it, using the phrase or versions of it on dozens and dozens of pieces of merchandise. Beaton, of course, received exactly zero dollars from any of said merchandise.

As you may have heard, the so-called Grumpy Cat just passed away at the age of seven. The poor thing had spent years being subjected to world tours and flashing cameras, so we can only hope that she’s receiving a heavenly reward of kitty munch and sunbeams. However, the Bundesens still walk the earth, and they deserve criticism for profiting off of Beaton’s genius. Sure, one can’t conclusively prove that the anonymous redditor ripped her off, but at the very least, the Bundesens could have acknowledged the possibility and directed Grumpy Cat’s fans to check out the cartoonist’s work. Alas, they chose not to.

Sadly, this is par for the course for so many comics creators — and has been for a good long while. Back in the late 1960s, R. Crumb’s image of people with giant legs walking through the world with the accompanying text “Keep on Truckin’” (which, to be fair, was itself stolen from a line in Blind Boy Fuller’s song “Truckin’ My Blues Away”) became enormously popular on various consumer products that Crumb never saw a dime for. In the ’90s, people around the world would make it look like Bill Watterson’s Calvin was urinating on images representing things they didn’t like. More recently, there’s been a sad explosion of examples of this kind of cartooning content theft in the dizzying world of the contemporary internet: K.C. Green’s “This Is Fine” dog, Kris Straub’s “All Houses Matter” strip, and — most tragic of all — Matt Furie’s Pepe the Frog from his Boy’s Club series have all been treated as though they’re in the public domain for all to appropriate without crediting, much less remunerating, their creators.

There’s really very little anyone can do about this stupid state of affairs. The internet has no regard for copyright and suing anyone for violation of it is like playing the world’s most irritating game of whack-a-mole. Nevertheless, as we mourn Grumpy Cat today, we should spare a thought for the uncredited woman whose words were (arguably) essential to the (arguably) abused cat’s owners’ success. Beaton herself told me in 2015 that she resents what happened with her work and the feline, but that she doesn’t want to be defined by that resentment. Instead, I will resent the internet on her behalf. If you like Grumpy Cat, buy Step Aside, Pops, the book that contains the original comic, or at least link to the free version of the strip. After all, it went viral once, and it was awful.

Was Grumpy Cat’s Fame Built on a Stolen Joke?