In 2004, 17-year-old Steve Ibsen took photos of his cat Kayla and realized that if he animated the images, he could make it look like his cat was dancing. In one take, he recorded a song to accompany the animation: “Cat! / I’m a kitty cat! / And I dance, dance, dance / And I dance, dance, dance.”
YouTube didn’t exist yet, so he uploaded the animation to his website, and then-popular flash animation sites like Albino Blacksheep reached out asking to share his work. Kitty Cat Dance was arguably one of the first viral videos of the era, but as it grew in popularity, it also became easier to steal—people cropped out Ibsen’s watermark and added their own. In the Wild West of early social media, he couldn’t prove his ownership of the Kitty Cat Dance, even though he had all the original files, not to mention his cat, Kayla, a creature blissfully unaware of her own virality. He saw people on the streets wearing T-shirts they bought at Hot Topic, which featured three cats in the same pose as his video. On a powder blue background, the cartoonish text read: “I’m a kitty cat and I dance, dance, dance.” By 2009, while other artists made a profit from Ibsen’s labor, he was figuring out how to pay rent as an art student graduating into a recession.
“The Hot Topic thing is the tip of the iceberg,” Ibsen says. “It’s been really monetized without me, and I’ve never really known what to do about it.”
Back then, lawyers were hesitant to get involved in internet copyright cases. But as years passed, memes and YouTube videos became more accepted as pieces of our digital culture that had value and weren’t going anywhere. So when Nintendo included Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat in their game Scribblenauts, the creators of those memes sued and won.
This was a landmark victory for meme-makers. Chris Torres, creator of Nyan Cat, has continued to advocate for internet creators’ right to their intellectual property. As NFTs (non-fungible tokens) emerge as the next big thing online, the originators of decades-old memes like the Kitty Cat Dance have to figure out how to respond.
When we say that a piece of digital art is “non-fungible,” it means that it’s unique. It can’t be replaced or exchanged for an equal item—if you have a dollar bill, you can swap it out for any other dollar bill, and it will still have the same value. But when something is minted as an NFT, it’s one of a kind. The most popular platforms for NFTs like Rarible and OpenSea operate on Ethereum, a cryptocurrency. Unlike paper money, cryptocurrencies like Ethereum or Bitcoin are built on the blockchain, a public record of transactions that each cryptocurrency’s network secures. So, if you own an NFT of a digital art piece, that means that you have undeniable, immutable evidence of the artwork’s authenticity, because the blockchain record tells you exactly how and when it was created, and who made it.
This February, Torres sold an NFT of his famous rainbow-poptart-cat GIF for 300 ETH ($548,391.00). This might seem counterintuitive, because even if you don’t own the authenticated Nyan Cat GIF, you can still download a copy. Digital art like Nyan Cat can be copied and reproduced ad infinitum at no cost, but NFTs allow meme-makers to sell their work as though it’s a painting at an art gallery. In March, the auction house Christie’s sold a JPG of a work by the digital artist Beeple for $69 million. So, to help give power back to internet creators like Ibsen, Torres worked with the people who made these iconic early memes to auction them as NFTs.
Many of these digital artworks and memes sell on Foundation, which is just one of many marketplaces for NFTs—but it’s an invite-only platform, and the exclusivity creates hype. Once an artist is invited to Foundation, they can send a limited number of invites to other artists, and in the Foundation app’s official Discord, artists clamor desperately for invites. Ibsen was one of these artists. He posted on the Foundation Discord about how the Kitty Cat Dance was stolen from him 17 years ago, and while no one offered an invite, one artist suggested he get in touch with Torres.
“I emailed him that night, and I woke up to an email back,” says Ibsen. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I know your stuff, and I know how much it sucks to get your stuff stolen.’”
Torres collaborated with Foundation’s marketing team to get these meme creators on the platform and organize an auction called #Memeconomy. So, by the middle of March, these forgotten memes re-entered the spotlight: Grumpy Cat sold for 44.20 ETH ($80,963.35), Scumbag Steve sold for 30.2008 ETH ($55,494.27), and Bad Luck Brian sold for 20.00 ETH ($36,695.20). Most of the buyers remain anonymous (though the same person purchased Keyboard Cat and Scumbag Steve), but sometimes digital art galleries will get into bidding wars, too. Each of the seven creators in the first week of #Memeconomy auctions got a decent payday, but compared with these high rollers, Steve Ibsen’s payout for the Kitty Cat Dance might seem small: He made 2.00 ETH ($3,682.42).
“I had an outpouring from friends and family like, ‘I’m so sorry, are you okay?’ But I am not rich enough to think that’s a small amount of money,” says Ibsen, now a 34-year-old art director who was laid off during the pandemic. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I just sold art that was 17 years old for $3,000! That’s great!’”
Still, Ibsen probably would’ve made more money if he controlled his intellectual property to begin with. Before his auction on Foundation, he uploaded a YouTube video explaining why he decided to sell the Kitty Cat Dance as an NFT. In addition to Hot Topic, he mentions a Roblox level based on his video, as well as a Fortnite dance that’s eerily similar—none of these companies ever reached out to him. A few years after making the Kitty Cat Dance, he was able to get “Content ID” on YouTube, meaning that YouTube recognized the video belonged to him, and he could monitor if other people were uploading it without his permission. Since then, the video has been uploaded by other users on YouTube over 16,500 times.
While there’s still no clear path for internet copyright, NFTs provide a way for meme creators to capture some value from their creations. At least now, if anyone ever tries to use Ibsen’s teenage work again without permission, he has more proof that the video belongs to him. NFTs can help viral artists like Ibsen retain their rights, but what would’ve stopped someone else from uploading the Kitty Cat Dance as an NFT first?
“I was terrified someone was going to post an NFT of my video. I’m always late to the platform,” Ibsen says. “So, if nobody asked for my ID or anything, I could’ve totally pretended to be myself—that’s what people have always done.”
The concept of a “meme economy” extends beyond Foundation—a company called Valuables By Cent has begun minting tweets as NFTs. If someone sees a tweet that they want to own, they can send a request to the Twitter user to buy their tweet. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is selling the first ever tweet (he wrote “just setting up my twttr” in 2006) as an NFT; currently, the highest bid is $2.5 million. Dorsey tweeted that he’ll convert the money from the sale into Bitcoin and donate it to a charity supporting COVID-19 relief in Africa, but on a much smaller scale, users are bidding on tweets of ASCII art, or tweets from public figures like Kanye West, Barack Obama, Paris Hilton, and Taylor Swift. Maybe now, instead of dropping their SoundCloud, viral tweeters will drop their Cent link.
It feels dystopian to watch these unfathomable sums of money transfer between NFT artists in real time on platforms like Foundation and Valuables By Cent. This is especially true outside the insular crypto world, as many await their $1,400 stimulus checks so that they can catch up on overdue bills. Still, it’s not as though people never mindlessly flaunted their wealth before NFTs—now, it’s just easier for everyone to watch, like the “Squidward looking out his window” meme.
Some people worry that NFT transactions might be used to cover up money laundering. Other critics cite the massive amount of energy it takes to mine cryptocurrency, but according to the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance, “always-on but inactive home devices in the USA” consume as much energy in a year as Bitcoin would in 1.7 years.
“I’ve had thousands of people say, ‘You are destroying the planet. You are making a selfish decision,’” says Ibsen. “I’m glad that’s even being considered though, because I haven’t eaten meat in 15 years! I have never in my life been on that side of the environmentalist firing squad.”
What creates artistic and financial value in Kitty Cat Dance isn’t its state-of-the-art animation or music (sorry, Steve, you were 17). But people are buying these memes because they represent a cultural moment, and there’s where the value lies.
Now that Ibsen sold his Kitty Cat Dance, what’s next? Well, he now has highly coveted access to upload his art to the Foundation platform. He could’ve uploaded detailed video game landscapes that display his artistic skill, but that’s not what sells—in NFT art, so much of the economy is driven by a sense of nostalgia, wanting to remember a time that has passed, or an event that’s still happening now. So, he uploaded another meme.