Tanara Mallory has 3.4 million followers on TikTok. Her videos have been liked more than 58 million times. Her voice has been used to narrate 5,600 other people’s memes.
Still, Mallory says the money she’s made from her virality covers “gas and groceries” at best.
The North Philly resident, 47, is a supermarket cook by day — she prefers not to say where — and a social media star by night. Mallory wryly pokes fun at viral recipes for casseroles and desserts designed to make viewers gag. Her catchphrase, “Everyone’s so creative,” transcends Mallory’s own work; her voice dubs videos that riff on the frustration of watching people make deliberate mistakes.
“I’m just sarcastically saying what’s on everyone’s mind,” Mallory said.
Mallory pokes fun at recipes that are destined to fail — ready-made items that include spheres of raw hamburger meat and pans of crispy pasta — which has allowed her to build a brand that cuts across the tensions of the Internet, where talk of something as simple as how cooking chili for your neighbors can become incendiary.
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Mallory’s situation is all too common for black social media creators who have shaped internet culture for decades. Many recent trends can be traced back to black creators—the “Renegade” dance, our overuse of the word “slay,” and Y2K miniskirts, to name a few—but those creators rarely receive credit or financial gain.
Turning internet influence into money has some black creators struggling for recognition, leading many down a rabbit hole of unenforceable legal advice.
“Everybody tells me I need an agent, I need brand deals, I need this or that, but I don’t want to feel like I owe people before I even see any money,” Mallory said.
Mallory captures each of her viral creations in one shot; she is still learning how to edit. The mother of three recently started reposting her content to YouTube, where she’s gained more than 200,000 subscribers in just over three months, but Mallory wouldn’t call herself a techie: “I didn’t know what a URL was when I first started .”
Her brand is just starting to pay off: Mallory is a member of TikTok’s Creator Fund, which pays cents on the dollar to post videos on the app, is making batches of Cameos for $50 apiece, and is working on a merchandise line with students at Rowan University .
But Mallory’s returns pale in comparison to creators who have managed to turn their viral personas into tangible commodities, from book deals to coffee brands.
“If I stay dependent on things like the Creator Fund, I’ll never be able to quit my full-time job,” she said.
So you want to copyright your material? Don’t bet on it.
The advice given to black creators looking to protect and monetize their work boils down to this: Copyright or trademark your material, even if it’s not clear what that means.
Calls for black creators to license their work came in the wake of the 2021 Black TikTok Strike, when prominent black choreographers stopped creating viral dances after seeing white influencers like Charlie D’Amelio and Addison Rae win once-in-a-lifetime opportunities si of routines they did not.
“I think I could have gotten money for it, promotions for it… I don’t think any of those things happened for me because nobody knows I did the dance,” Renegade creator Jalaya Harmon, ,” told The New York Times as she watched D’Amelio’s net worth jump to $20 million after her dance.
TikTok has faced accusations of deliberately suppressing the work of black creators, leaving it up to them to decide whether to leave the app entirely or take time out from how people use their work.
After watching a YouTube channel post her videos without permission, Mallory chooses the latter.
“I usually just laugh it off,” Mallory said. “But it really bothers me when people take my videos and post them like it’s their show.”
Mallory sought to keep four of her catchphrases — including “Everybody’s so creative” and “We don’t do that in Philly” — before launching her merchandise line, but the attorney she was working with hadn’t started the process since the end of March. Mallory had to abandon him.
“There are times when I’m a little overwhelmed. I just don’t know the ins and outs of things like that yet,” she said.
For those with the means to seek a license, the process doesn’t get any clearer.
To establish copyright in something as ephemeral as a dance or a TikTok meme, you need three things, according to Cynthia Dahl, director of the Detkin Legal Clinic for Intellectual Property and Technology at Cary Law University in Pennsylvania: originality, a record fixed in time and the specific expression of an idea, such as a version of a knock-knock joke, but not the format itself.
Copyright registration allows creators to “control what other people do with their content,” Dahl said, which could mean licensing work for use in other media — or prosecuting those who copy but don’t credit their work. .
Even getting there is difficult: Fresh Prince of Bel Air actor Alfonso Ribeiro tried to register his beloved Carlton Dance after Epic Games added it to the Fortnight Battle Royale video game, but the US Copyright Office blocked his request, claiming the dance lacked complexity.
And at least 20 percent of participants in a program by tech company Logitech aimed at giving black choreographers legal protection for their work — including “Savage” TikTok dance creator Keara Wilson — don’t know the status of their copyrights, the Inquirer has learned.
Controlling a copyright once it’s registered is also nebulous, said David Hecht, a New York-based attorney working with choreographer Kyle Hanagami on an appeal against Epic Games after they sampled some of his work in Fortnite.
Hecht, who also represents Ribiero, said he has seen “almost no enforcement” from social media creators. Issuing takedown requests for every uncredited video takes a long time, and taking violators to court can cost thousands in legal fees.
“If it’s a bunch of copycats that don’t make money themselves, is the juice worth the squeeze?” Hecht said.
Students get creative
Mallory is committed to taking ownership of her work.
First up: a line of clothing, bags and aprons produced by students in Rowan University’s Entrepreneurship Learning Lab, taught by Professor Jenny Drumgoole. Mallory is among the first customers of the class.
“I want her to break out and do as much as she can … I think she’s a genius,” Drumgoole said.
From there, Drumgoole’s 12 pupils designed merchandise for Mallory, including a range of cartoon logos; created a website; and shot a set of visuals for Mallory to use as she pursues advertising opportunities.
Now Drumgoole says her students are trying to file trademark registrations for Mallory. “I want my students to be the favorites when Tanara is rich and famous,” Drumgool mused.
As for Mallory, she’s certain her comedy will become literal currency.
“My goal is to become a full-time influencer,” she said. “I always try to make everyone laugh.”