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Who Owns Pepe the Frog? The Alt-Right vs. Cartoonist Matt Furie

A legal fight involving the alt-right, Trump voters, one of Washington, D.C.’s most powerful law firms, and the website 4chan is brewing.

Is Pepe the Frog a symbol of free speech or artwork hijacked by racist hate groups? This iconic amphibian has been labeled a Nazi, condemned by a presidential candidate, and now is at the center of an important First Amendment battle in an era of unlimited replication, imitation, and mutation. It's a fight that involves the alt-right, Trump voters, a powerful Washington, D.C.-based law firm, and the anonymous online image board 4chan, a.k.a., the "asshole of the internet."

Pepe the Frog is the creation of 38-year-old cartoonist Matt Furie, who declined to be interviewed for this story. The anthropomorphic frog first appeared 12 years ago in Furie's web comic Boy's Club. In the series' most famous sequence, Pepe is caught standing at a toilet with his pants around his ankles. As he later explains, "feels good man."

It wasn't until a few years later, when someone posted the "feels good man" image to 4chan, that Pepe became a global phenomenon. The "feels bad man" and "sad frog" versions of Pepe emerged, and the meme spread from there.

Pepe entered the mainstream. Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj shared his image on social media. Matt Furie told the Daily Dot in 2015 that he supported the "anonymous people on the internet" who had turned his creation into an unstoppable meme, even going so far as to voice support for "people's decisions to profit off of Pepe."

Then Pepe became something else entirely.

Intellectual property attorney Louis Tompros says Matt Furie contacted his firm WilmerHale after Pepe appeared in what he describes as an Islamophobic children's book in which Pepe does battle with a bearded alligator and what appear to be his burqa-clad minions. That was only the beginning.

Pepe's most recent evolution into a right-wing symbol most likely started on 4chan's /pol/ page, a board devoted to facilitating "politically incorrect" conversation that became a haven for Trump supporters in 2016. Images of Pepe wearing red MAGA hats proliferated, and Donald Trump, Jr. even posted an image that included a Trumpified version of Pepe to social media.

The Clinton campaign responded by branding Pepe a "symbol associated with White Supremacy." The Anti-Defamation League lists the frog as a hate symbol.

Furie and his legal team began sending Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices to people they believed were using Pepe to "promote hate."

One of those takedown notices went to Mike Cernovich, a popular writer and vocal Trump supporter who describes himself as part of the "New Right."

"We're not alt-right, and we're not old school National-Review-boring right—we're aggressive," Cernovich told Reason. "We're in a meme world—we're in a world where you have to be catchy, punchy...That's how you actually...[persuade] people to accept your ideas as true."

Cernovich posted a fan-made video on his YouTube channel that incorporates Hillary Clinton's audiobook description of what it felt like sharing the debate stage with Trump. But instead of Trump looming behind Clinton, the creator inserted a dancing Pepe.

"I thought, 'this is art!'" says Cernovich.

Furie's attorneys sent Cernovich a takedown notice. He complied but also hired free speech lawyer Marc Randazza to draft a response in an attempt to discourage further takedown notices.

"I believe things can be memed into the public domain," Randazza told Reason. "You can take a whole bunch of already created works, and when you take them all together and then you blow new life into that and a new thought is expressed, you probably have engaged in what's called fair use." He says Pepe fits the bill.

Furie's attorneys have gone further in the case of Kansas-City based artist Jessica Logdson, who refused to take down the Pepe-themed paintings she sells on eBay for 99 cents, plus $37 shipping. When Logsdon refused to remove the listing, Furie sued. Logsdon told Reason via email that she "may appear confident" in the case but is "rational enough to be scared" because "WilmerHale is a titan of law."

"You can't copy other people's ideas and claim free speech," says Tompros. "[The alt-right is] absolutely free to spout hate in some other form. We just don't want them using Pepe the Frog to do it."

4Channers responded in September by projecting images of Pepe on the WilmerHale office building.

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  • colorblindkid||

    Randazza is defending Cernovich? Good for him. I'm sure he hates the guy. It'd be nice if the ACLU was full of people like him.

  • colorblindkid||

    "The Clinton campaign responded by branding Pepe a "symbol associated with White Supremacy." The Anti-Defamation League lists the frog as a hate symbol."

    Also great to remind people that the only reason Pepe became a "hate symbol" was because Hillary Clinton brought attention to it and therefore gave the internet trolls everything they could dream of. Idiots.

  • timbo||

    Exactly. No one would give a shit were it not for the left vilifying everything that they possibly could.

    The words terror and hate have turned into white noise.

    Americans have become such trembling pussies that this kind of juvenile sh*t enrages the douche horde.
    What a bunch of fags.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    It's snowflakes all the way down.

  • Zeb||

    I didn't know the sequence of events leading to the Pepe-is-racist thing. That just makes it even sillier.

    Hillary really was her own worst enemy.

  • Hank Stamper||

    —we're in a world where you have to be catchy, punchy...That's how you actually...[persuade] people to accept your ideas as true."

    That is how I always determine the truth. Jesus Christ it is a shittly drawn frog. Not saying the above isn't true but for fuck sakes America...

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Is Pepe the Frog a symbol of free speech or artwork hijacked by racist hate groups?

    Or something that random trollish people use because they know they can send an entire segment of the populace into the vapors when they see it. It's like tweeting a picture that triggers an epileptic fit.

  • timbo||

    pepe the frog seems emblematic of the American lack of humor anymore.

    How can this silly crap not be shrugged off as silly and inconsequential. hard to believe someone is making enough money off of it to possibly go to the high courts. This is idiocracy.

    We're not gonna protest!

  • Crusty Juggler||

    "These, Tom, are the Causeheads. They find a world-threatening issue and stick with it for about a week."

  • Ska||

    So that's who has been peppering the comments section with raw meat.

  • timbo||

    Causeheads? We need a scause then.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    lol

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    But where does the Southern Poverty Law Center stand on Pepe'? Are there any transcripts or videos of Pepe' himself making statements in support of white supremacy? Or would that be green supremacy?

  • buybuydandavis||

    Green lives matter

  • Kivlor||

    Matt Furie told the Daily Dot in 2015 that he supported the "anonymous people on the internet" who had turned his creation into an unstoppable meme, even going so far as to voice support for "people's decisions to profit off of Pepe."

    IANAL but if he went to a publication and said publicly when asked about other people profiting off of Pepe:
    "I believe in supporting people's decisions to profit off of Pepe in order to provide them with the most positive business experience possible. I strive to be an advocate for Pepe in both love and enterprise and hope to help business people to have an empowering and joyful experience while making an ocean of profits as limitless as the universe. "

    Then hasn't he basically guaranteed not to sue someone who uses Pepe for profit? Shouldn't this affect his case?

  • Stormy Dragon||

    If I invite someone into my home, I'm free to kick them out whenever I decide I'm no longer enjoying their presence.

  • <Unpastable>||

    And if your home was somehow comparable to a copyrighted work, that would be relevant.

    Is your home subject to "fair use" by random strangers?

  • Mitsima||

    It's almost as if he's never even head of, "Real Genius".

  • EscherEnigma||

    Not really. If he doesn't explicitly publish under a different copyright statement, then the "default" one applies. He may choose not to enforce his copyright, but that doesn't mean people aren't violating it.

    If he had chosen to explicitly publish under the Creative Commons License, allowing all works with or without attribution for commercial and personal use? Then he would have no case, as he had explicitly given away those rights. But he didn't, he just made a vague statement in an interview.

    So now, years later, when the copyright is in dispute, there's no liberal copyright statement that the derivative creators can point at saying "we had permission". Lacking that, they can only point to his non-legally binding comments and say "good faith". Which would probably get them off the hook if they stopped when they received a "cease and desist" letter, but if they ignore said letter then they can no longer claim to be acting in good faith.

    In short, he didn't go through the hoops to make his work public domain, he just expressed a vague intent, and vague intents aren't legally binding. There's a reason the defenders aren't claiming they had permission, but are claiming it's fair use.

  • Number 2||

    Hold on Escher. Assuming Furie obtained his copyright before he allowed the world to to copy his meme at will, he may have waived his protections by failing to vigorously enforce his rights and acquiescing to free use. That's why companies zealously protect their copyrighted and trademarked material — or else they end up like Kleenex, xerox, etc.

  • Number 2||

    Correction: that's true for trademarks, but not copyrights. So Furie can conceivably allow the entire rest of the world to duplicate his cartoon frog and object to one remaining user he dislikes.

  • Robert||

    No, it's true of copyright too. Maybe even patents.

  • Robert||

    Also of land.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Yeah, that gets into the weeds of it, but the overall point remains the same: CYA. Whether you're trying to give other's rights to use your work, or trying to use someone else's work, make sure the actual legalese supports you first. A vaguely stated intent is not sufficient, it just creates ambiguity.

  • <Unpastable>||

    He's not going to be able to show damages, so the lawsuit has no point other than to harass and intimidate speech he doesn't like.

  • <Unpastable>||

    Also there's the fact that the people he's suing have invested time and money in creating the derivative works. Based on the fact he publicly stated he was OK with other people using Pepe for free and did not appear to be attempting to profit from it himself.

  • Old Mexican's Speedos||

    Is Pepe the Frog a symbol of free speech or artwork hijacked by racist hate groups?


    Neither. You can't "hijack" art. Speech, the act, is the symbol of free speech, not some cartoon. IP is NOT property.

    "Copyright is not just there to incentivize you to create. It's also there to create a larger marketplace of ideas," says Randazza


    Randazza is a gawd-damned liar.

  • Mitsima||

    "Sad is the man who has no original ideas worth protecting." -Mitsimalawalabingbangbopoopeedo

  • ||

    There was no incentive to create prior to IP laws. None.

  • Mitsima||

    Very few were needed before cheap copying and mass communication/distribution became available. Now you can expect months, or years, of American-university research to be replicated, manufactured, and rolling off the assembly lines in Shenzhen before the UPSO's digital hash has finished computing.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Who Owns Pepe the Frog?

    Answer: the lulz own Pepe the Frog.

  • Kivlor||

    You're behind the times my dude. Kek owns Pepe the Frog.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Both parties make good cases. I'm glad I don't have any skin in this contention.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    The original Boy's Club was so good too. Oh well Matt Furie, you fucked up.

  • BYODB||

    I hope that whomever decides to go after 4chan doesn't have any dirty laundry in their closet, and moreover can't be made to appear as if they do. That's one hive of scum and villainy I'd be wary of going after, personally.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's probably slightly harder now that Moot left to work at Google and 4chan is now owned by a Japanese fella. But 4chan has fallen under legal threat before. I can distinctly remember at least one old board that doesn't exist, and hasn't for a decade, due to fear of legal repercussion. I wouldn't be surprised if someone does it again.

  • Epar||

    It's funny because nowadays /pol/ (and /b/ before it became purely about dumping boring porn) is more susceptible to legal challenge than that certain board. The biggest reason why it was deleted is because moot didn't like it and wasn't not fond of "pandering" to the gentlemen who visited it. Though there were some assholes on said board that did post the real stuff, that surreptitious activity was occurring on /b/ too.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    I'm generally in favor of reducing IP restrictions, but based on the current law, Cernovich doesn't have a leg to stand on.

  • Mitsima||

    Isn't "brand dilution" one of the listed reasons some companies go after IP infringement with religious fervor? Pepe is as diluted as a $25 Long Island Ice Tea at a NYC night club.

  • Cro's Innumerous Basterds||

    "Brand dilution" is a trademark law concept. This case concerns copyright law.

  • Mitsima||

    Someone gave a pertinent and intelligent answer without questioning my parentage or assigning to me depraved ovine predilections.

    I think I'm going to cry.

  • <Unpastable>||

    On the abstract question of whether Pepe is copyrighted, yes. But hard to see how the Pepe author can claim any damages, which makes the lawsuit look suspiciously like SLAPP.

    It's perfectly legal to refuse to obey a DMCA takedown notice. You just lose immunity from lawsuits.

  • Azathoth!!||

    I'm generally in favor of reducing IP restrictions, but based on the current law, Furie doesn't have a leg to stand on.

    Fixed that for ya!

  • Macaulay McToken||

    Praise kek!

  • Eric Bana||

    I don't even know anything about this, but I'm certainly outraged!

  • TGoodchild||

    "You can't copy other people's ideas and claim free speech," says Tompros."

    Yes, you most definitely can.*

  • Robert||

    If the owner failed to defend Pepe's copyright all those yrs. in the interim when they knew he was being used by othersw/o permission, then it's settled copyright law that Pepe's now public domain.

  • <Unpastable>||

    You're referring to "genericization", which applies to trademarks, not copyright. There are no provisions for copyrighted material to enter the public domain prior to expiration other than the holder's explicit release.

    However, he's going to have a hard time proving damages in court considering he previously stated he was OK with everybody using it for free already, and doesn't seem to have any interest in profiting from Pepe. He certainly looks to be attempting to use copyright litigation to suppress speech he doesn't like.

  • EscherEnigma||

    He certainly looks to be attempting to use copyright litigation to suppress speech he doesn't like.
    Seeing as that's the entire point of copyright law, I'm confused that you think this matters.

  • Conchfritters||

    "We're not alt-right, and we're not old school National-Review-boring right—we're aggressive,"

    I am guessing you never took your yacht into international waters to experiment with illegal drugs.

  • Epar||

    /pol/, /v/, and /r9k/ ruined 4chan.

  • Longtobefree||

    All of this ignores the blatant fact that PePe is a cultural appropriation of Kermit.

  • <Unpastable>||

    Kermit belongs to the world.

  • Radioactive||

    Kermit belongs in the soup!

  • Thought Oasis||

    If someone's political philosophy is threatened by a poorly drawn cartoon character, then they need to seriously re-think their political philosophy....

  • Miner49er||

    I'm not a lawyer, but I am an inventor, and was trained by expert intellectual property lawyers

    It is my understanding that if a creator issues a statement that others are free to exploit his creation for profit, the creation becomes public domain and anyone may use it for any reason.

    Similarly, if an inventor discloses his invention without first obtaining a duty of confidentiality, the invention becomes public domain.

    So it seems that Pepe the Frog is public domain, and anyone may use it for any purpose without the creator's consent.

  • gphx||

    'Fair Use' includes Parody and Pepe's are inherently satirical in nature.

    'A parody is a work that ridicules another, usually well-known work, by imitating it in a comic way. Judges understand that, by its nature, parody demands some taking from the original work being parodied. Unlike other forms of fair use, a fairly extensive use of the original work is permitted in a parody in order to "conjure up" the original.'

  • gphx||

    Oh God, I'm one of those people who put in an extra apostrophe.

  • Titanicguy||

    Damn alt-right! Leave out memes alone, REEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

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