Of all the various sights, sounds, and memes that spun out of the 2016 presidential election, few were as ubiquitous and inflammatory as Pepe the Frog. Originally a character in a webcomic called Boy's Club created by Matt Furie, the instantly recognizable, somewhat crudely drawn frog has been a familiar sight from the pro-Trump far-right over the last couple of years, often used as a mascot for neo-Nazis and the white supremacist "alt-right." But now, Furie is taking legal action to reclaim Pepe's legacy.
As one of Furie's lawyers told Matthew Gault for Motherboard, the recent legal moves ― which include sending cease and desist letters to a number of far-right personalities who've used Pepe's likeness, and filing takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ― represent an attempt to vigorously protect his client's intellectual property rights, and to stymie anyone who's been "misappropriating" the image of the now-infamous cartoon frog.
[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. 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.
This is not the first time Furie has used the legal system to shut down somebody trying to profit off of his character. In late August, in fact, he successfully halted the release of a children's book that centrally involved the Pepe character.
Specifically, the book, which was to be titled The Adventures of Pepe and Pede, was reportedly written as a thinly veiled anti-Islam story, with adherents of the Muslim faith represented by a villainous, bearded alligator named "Alkah."
Louis Tompros, the same attorney who spoke with Gault about the cease and desist letters this week, made it clear at the time that the highly offensive nature of how Pepe has been used is part of what's motivating Furie's legal efforts.
[Furie] thought it was particularly offensive that the book was espousing some hateful and Islamophobic themes and was being marketed directly to children, using his character.
Furie got that last laugh on that one, as the author, Eric Hauser, reportedly donate $1,500 profits from the book to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) since he infringed on Furie's copyright of Pepe.
In this case, Furie is taking legal action against far-right figureheads like Mike Cernovich, Tim Gionet ― better known to social media denizens as "Baked Alaska" ― and Richard Spencer, the most notorious of the three by far. Furie is also reportedly putting Reddit and Amazon on-notice about any use of Pepe's likeness, including the virulent pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald.
Furie once tried to kill off the character. Back in May, after more than a year of racist appropriation of his character ― Twitter Nazis, for example, would sometimes make memes of Pepe killing people in gas chambers ― Furie drew a comic showing the cartoon frog's funeral, his lifeless body laying in an open casket with some of Furie's other, lesser-known creations looking on.
It remains to be seen how successful Furie's strategy of lawyering up against the mass misuse of Pepe will be. Needless to say, sometimes attempting to crack down on the usage of memes of promotion of certain ideas only draws more attention to them. But after many months of taking a more hands-off attitude, and believing things would improve over time, Furie has clearly decided that the time for passivity is over.