The fight for the soul of Pepe the Frog entered a new chapter on Monday, when the meme’s creator filed a lawsuit against the website InfoWars.
Artist Matt Furie is suing Alex Jones’s conspiracy theory website for copyright infringement over an item for sale in the site’s online store, a poster that features an image of Pepe the Frog alongside figures the site champions, including Donald Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos, Roger Stone, Matt Drudge, Kellyanne Conway, and Jones himself, as Courthouse News reported. The poster is emblazoned with the acronym MAGA, for Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The poster’s design is attributed to “artist and patriot Jon Allen” and priced at $29.95.
“The guiding principle for the enforcement of Matt’s rights is that Matt does not want people to profit from sales of images and merchandise that use Pepe the Frog in connections with ideas or symbols of hate,” Louis W. Tompros of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, one of Furie’s attorneys, told Hyperallergic. “What we want is for Infowars to stop selling this poster and turn over any profits from past sales of it.”
InfoWars owner Alex Jones has issued a series of statements in response to the lawsuit brought by Furie, calling it “fraudulent” and suggesting that he has no valid claim to the image of Pepe the Frog. Jones vows that he will fight Furie’s lawsuit.
The saga of how Pepe the Frog became appropriated as a far-right meme is a murky one, but by the time the 2016 US Presidential campaign got into full swing it frequently appeared at pro-Trump rallies. One especially viral version of the meme — due in no small part to Trump himself sharing it on Twitter — even featured Pepe the Frog as Trump, standing at a lectern featuring the seal of the US President. The image of the amiable amphibian became so firmly associated with Trump and far-right factions that Hillary Clinton’s campaign released an explainer (since deleted) describing Pepe as “a symbol associated with white supremacy.” The character was even added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols.
The meme’s origins are far more innocent. Pepe the Frog first appeared in a zine called Playtime that Furie made using Microscoft Paint, and then the character became a fixture of the artist’s Boy’s Club comics, where he was described as “a peaceful frog-dude” and best known for his catchphrase “feels nice man.” “It started off pretty small and a lot of the jokes, and the vibe of the comic book itself, was really just to entertain myself and my friends,” Furie told Vice in 2016. “They’re just little critters who represent my early-20s lifestyle. And I was doing it because I thought it would be fun and funny, and it grew from there.”
Pepe the Frog initially achieved viral fame as a reaction meme, with Katy Perry’s interpretation in November 2014 and Nicki Minaj’s the following month ranking as the character’s most high-profile appearances. But in 2015 its uses became a lot less cheerful. Last year, Furie began a widespread public and legal campaign to wrest back control of his creation. Though Furie’s efforts have resulted in many successes, they continue with every new infringing use of Pepe the Frog.
“It’s a little like playing Whack-A-Mole because there are a whole lot of companies that spring up to try to profit from Matt’s images and character,” Tompros said. “The first case was against an author in Texas [Eric Hauser], who used the image of Pepe the Frog in a book that featured some very Islamophobic imagery and messages. He ultimately agreed to stop selling the book and turned over all the profits to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.”