Pepe the Frog’s creator, Matt Furie, is taking aggressive action to defend his intellectual property. The popular caricature — a green frog— was a popular meme on the Internet before becoming a figure endorsed by millennial Trump supporters during the 2016 U.S. election.
Due to its popularity among the right, Hillary Clinton’s campaign condemned the character as a “white supremacist” symbol. It was a claim backed by the Anti-Defamation League and countless liberal publications. Disheartened by his character’s newfound infamy, Furie “killed” Pepe by giving it a funeral, only to resurrect it months later in a Kickstarter project for a new comic book.
Furie is now on the warpath by taking legal action against anyone and everyone who used Pepe the Frog as a political meme to support President Donald Trump through the services of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLC, which agreed to perform legal services for the artist pro-bono.
His first order of business was to send out multiple DMCAs to Reddit and Amazon over copyright infringement for hosting Pepe as an “alt-right” symbol. His lawyers also served cease and desist orders to Mike Cernovich, Tim “Baked Alaska” Treadstone and the r/the_donald subreddit. Richard Spencer, who wore a Pepe the Frog pin when he was punched on camera in January, was also served.
“[Furie] was very serious when he said that we wanted to make clear that Pepe was not the property of the alt-right and couldn’t be used by the alt-right,” said Louis Tompros, who’s part of Furie’s legal team to Motherboard. “But actions speak louder than words and we wanted to make sure we were backing up that statement against entities that were misappropriating the Pepe character and image. That’s what we’ve been doing over the past few weeks.”
Tompros said that they served a cease and desist to Spencer’s website, which they claim hosts Pepe in violation of Furie’s copyright. The team has also gone after Baked Alaska by sending DMCA notices to take down his images of Pepe on Amazon, Twitter, and elsewhere. Baked Alaska’s book, Meme Magic Secrets Revealed, was pulled for using an image of Pepe on the cover.
The lawyer, who also issued a cease and desist against vocal Trump supporter Mike Cernovich, claims that he “had a number of different uses of Pepe but most notably had a video he was publicizing through his Facebook and YouTube that was a 3D version of Pepe dancing with Hillary Clinton reading aloud sections of hew new book,” which he calls an “unauthorized use of Pepe.”
Likewise, the team has served a cease and desist to Google to stop selling “Build the Wall: The Game” for using a likeness of Pepe, where the character would appear as an achievement.
Furie’s lawyers, who sent DMCAs to Reddit to take down links to images of Pepe the Frog, told Motherboard that they believe Reddit will comply with their request instead of contesting it.
“If necessary, we expect to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement,” Tompros said. “I want to make sure that people have enough time to comply. The goal here is not to initiate lawsuits. The goal is to get the misuse of Pepe to stop. I’d rather do that through people complying with the cease and desist notices. But we’re certainly ready, willing, and able to bring suits to follow up for the folks who do not comply.”
It is unclear how much of a legal case Furie has in forcing people who post Pepe memes to comply to his demands. The artist allowed his trademark for Pepe the Frog, which was filed in 2015, to lapse last year. The status of the trademark is listed as “Abandoned-Failure To Respond Or Late Response” under Justia. While this does not invalidate Furie’s copyright claim (trademarks and copyrights are not the same thing), modifications of Pepe may be covered under fair use.
DMCA takedowns are legally enforceable cease and desist notices that allow creators to remove content they own from being misused by others. Established under the Clinton administration in 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was heavily backed by the recording industry to stifle the rise of piracy through Napster and BitTorrent.
More recently, DMCA has been used to silence free speech and wielded as a scepter in personal and political grudges. Race baiter and black supremacist ideologue Tariq Nasheed used DMCA to silence a detractor on YouTube, effectively suspending his channel. Popular YouTuber PewDiePie was also hit with copyright strikes by progressive game developers who virtue signaled in the wake of his accidental utterance of a racial slur on a livestream.
Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.