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.
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.
The case has yet to go to trial but could help clarify the blurry line between the free speech rights of internet meme makers and the copyright claims of artists.
"Copyright is not just there to incentivize you to create. It's also there to create a larger marketplace of ideas," says Randazza. "It's not there so that you can say, 'I'm upset about how my work is being used in a transformative manner, and I'm going to put a lock down on that.'"
"The frog is on the loose."
Shot, written, and produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Brett Raney.