​Pepe the Frog creator brings copyright lawsuit

The case of Pepe the Frog — a meme widely used without permission by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, conspiracist radio host Alex Jones and Donald Trump — appears headed to a federal court jury.

The anthropomorphic frog’s creator, artist Matt Furie, filed suit this week in U.S. District Court in California, alleging copyright infringement and seeking unspecified damages. He also seeks a permanent injunction barring unauthorized use of the image by assorted alt-right factions.

Furie claims he filed suit because he’s “dismayed by Pepe’s association with white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and the alt-right,” including unauthorized use of the image by Trump and his supporters, including Alex Jones.

Defendants named in the action are Infowars, LLC, and Free Speech Systems, LLC, two Texas-based companies managed by Jones, a far-right radio host and promoter of assorted conspiracy theories.

While Jones is not named personally as a defendant, he is described in the suit as “America’s leading conspiracy theorist” [and] a member of “an antigovernment far-right that blames the world’s ills on a grand global conspiracy.”

In a posting today on his web site, Jones said he “will not tolerate having Infowars’ name dragged through the mud” by attempting to equate his operation with “white supremacists and the alt-right, which adopted Pepe as a mascot.”  The post was accompanied by an image of Jones with Pepe.

His Alex Jones Show is syndicated to over 100 radio stations nationwide, and is simulcasted on YouTube and his website, infowars.com, the suit says.

Revenue from the radio show and its companion Infowars web site — estimated at more than $7 million a year — comes from products sold through radio programming and items offered for sale, the suit says.

Among items offered for sale by Jones’ companies is a copyright-infringing poster, prominently featuring a copy of Pepe. The poster now sells for $29.95, with Jones claiming sales help “support Infowars in the fight for free speech.”

Jones claims Infowars “didn’t even design or produce the poster and is completely protected as a third party.”

Furie doesn’t specify a specific amount of damages, but says he’s prepared to ask a jury to award him “his actual damages,” statutory damages and/or an amount equal to the “unlawful profits” Jones’ companies have made from illegal use of Pepe.

In the unauthorized poster sold by Jones’ companies, “Pepe appears alongside Jones, Trump, conservative commentator Matt Drudge, strategist Roger Stone, and other individuals associated with the Trump 2016 campaign,” the suit says.

Also depicted on the poster are infowars.com editor Paul Joseph Watson and Milo Yiannopoulos, former editor of Breitbart News, “both of whom have been associated with alt-right and nativist or white nationalist viewpoints,” the suit says.

In his response, Jones says he intends to counter-sue, claiming in his typical conspiracy-mindset that he will demand Furie “give up the name of the individual or group that put him up to” filing the suit.

Jones claims Infowars “didn’t even design or produce the poster and is completely protected as a third party.”

At no time, the suit claims, did Furie give his consent for the cartoon frog he created in the early 2000s to be used by Trump, white nationalists or any one associated with the racist alt-right.

His attorney, Rebecca Girolamo, of Los Angeles, did not immediately return a call from Hatewatch seeking comment.

But the suit says her client “did not authorize the use of the Pepe image or character in [the] poster and does not approve of the association of Pepe with Alex Jones or any of the other figures shown in this poster, or with [Trump’s] ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) slogan,” the suit says.

In October 2016, Furie partnered with the Anti-Defamation League to launch the #SavePepe campaign, to “reclaim Pepe as a symbol for peace, love, and acceptance.” The previous month, the ADL added Pepe the Frog to their database of General Hate Symbols.

But even after Trump’s election, his alt-right and white nationalist supporters have continued unauthorized use of his copyrighted image, Furie claims.

Disappointed with the continued unauthorized use of Pepe in connection with hateful imagery and themes, Furie posted an online comic last May in which Pepe has died. The meme, however, continues to be used by a hate groups.

Furie is described in the suit as an artist residing in San Luis Obispo County, California, whose art includes “children’s book illustrations for adults,” that blend child-like characters and adult situations. He is well known for, among other things, his comic book series Boy’s Club and his wordless children’s book The Night Riders.

Jones’ companies have “committed acts of direct infringement” in violation of Furie’s intellectual property rights, the suit says.

Pepe often depicted with large, rounded, brownish-red lips, bulging eyes, puffy eyelids, and a human-shaped body. Before he was hijacked as a hate meme, the suit says, Pepe “was a peaceful frog-dude -- a kind and blissful cartoon character, who lived alongside three animal roommates.”

The meme became famous in part, the suit says, because of his catchphrase, “feels good man.” By 2014, Pepe was featured prominently in internet memes.

“But beginning in 2015, various fringe groups connected with the alt-right attempted to co-opt Pepe by mixing images of Pepe with images of hate, including white supremacist language and symbols, Nazi symbols, and other offensive imagery,” the suit says.

In 2015, Pepe was the most retweeted meme on Twitter. In October of that year, an “unauthorized image of Pepe dressed as Donald Trump and standing behind the Presidential seal appeared on Twitter,’ the suit says.

“During the 2016 presidential campaign, the number of memes juxtaposing Pepe with racist, anti-Semitic, and other bigoted imagery and themes grew,” the suit says.

Two months before the 2016 presidential election, Trump posted an Instagram image labeled “The Deplorables,” featuring Pepe standing behind Trump, alongside other supporters of his presidential campaign, the suit says.

Despite Furie’s efforts, Jones’ companies and others have misused Furie’s character and copied Pepe images for use in products sold online to promote messages of hate.

Jones’ companies “not only copied Furie’s original creation, but also freeloaded off Pepe’s popularity and Furie’s labor,” the suit says.