Socially Awkward Penguin Gets More Awkward

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Socially Awkward Penguin is arguably one of the most recognizable memes on the Internet. The blue-backgrounded image of the off-balance penguin — superimposed with funny text — has been plastered across every message board, forum and social network on the Web. It’s an inside joke. An icon. A mascot, even a penguin.

It’s also the intellectual property of believe it or not National Geographic, which — awkward! — suddenly wants Internet users to pay up for posting it.

In the past year, the company’s licensing agency, Getty Images, has “pursued and settled” multiple infringement cases involving Socially Awkward Penguin, it confirmed to The Post. All of those actions were carried out in secret, with blogs and other posters agreeing to non-disclosure.

But over the summer, when Getty attempted to collect almost $900 in licensing fees from a German blog, its parent site, getDigital, published Getty’s letters online. And the ensuing outrage has sparked a wide-ranging debate about what Internet creativity, ownership and culture should look like.

“The Awkward Penguin is not just a random image we stole from Getty’s database, but one of the most well-known Internet memes,” the company protested in its blog post. Said Bastian Krug, the online marketing manager at getDigital: “We have no idea why they chose us.”

But, Getty is an unusually powerful player — and Socially Awkward Penguin, is a singularly ubiquitous, beloved image. The goofy-looking Adelie penguin was originally photographed in Antarctica by the veteran photojournalist George Mobley. (Mobley, 80, has retired to Panama, so we’ve no idea what he makes of his meme.) It took off online in 2009, when someone on 4chan thought to add the blue background and slap on captions that describe universally awkward settings: “hold the door … they’re too far away,” or “watch a movie with your family … there’s a bedroom scene.”

Since then, Socially Awkward Penguin has appeared in or on advertisements, ties, shot glasses, Denny’s GIFs and baby onesies. You can buy the Awkward Penguin iPhone app for 99 cents, if you’re so inclined. A popular Tumblr blog, called “F— Yeah Socially Awkward Penguin,” has spent six whole years chronicling the meme, one of the innumerable blogs and Web sites to republish, remix and re-share it.

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