White Supremacists’ Use of Pepe the Frog Fought by Its Creator

Updated on
  • Cartoonist Furie tries to wrest slacker frog from hate sites
  • Pepe has been drawn in Nazi uniforms and white KKK hoods

A man holds a sign of Pepe the frog, a conservative icon, during a rally in Berkeley, Calif. on April 27, 2017.

Photographer: Josh Edelson/Getty Images

The creator of Pepe the Frog is getting more aggressive in his legal campaign against websites, books and phone apps that he says use the fun-loving cartoon figure to espouse hate.

Lawyers for artist Matt Furie are demanding that websites, including one created by white supremacist Richard Spencer, stop using images or selling products featuring the cartoon frog. Last month they succeeded in getting a book with racist images and Pepe pulled off the market.

“Nobody should be using Pepe in any kind of hateful speech,” said Furie’s lawyer, Louis Tompros of WilmerHale in Boston.

Furie’s cartoon started more than a decade ago as a college slacker-like character, one of four roommates in a comic called Boy’s Club. The image and Pepe’s catchphrase “feels good man” became an Internet meme.

In the past two years, though, the character has been co-opted by the so-called “alt-right,” an umbrella term that covers various nationalist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-Islamic and racist groups. Pepe was sometimes pictured in a Nazi uniform or wearing a pointy white Ku Klux Klan hood.

“He thought after the election it would go away and it would wash over,” Trompos said.

The lawyer said he sent letters last week to prominent social media personality Mike Cernovich, Spencer’s altright.com website, and an activist known on Twitter as Baked Alaska asking them to stop unauthorized uses of Pepe’s image. Reddit has been asked to stop the use of Pepe as a pop-up on a forum supportive of President Donald Trump.

Cernovich said one image that Furie complained about was in an article where he explained why he wasn’t part of the so-called alt right. He said he has hired his own lawyers “to formally respond to the threats and to address the defamation.”

Fair Use

“Their lawsuit threat is frivolous,” he said in a message sent through Twitter. “One of the images they complain of my using was from Breitbart. It was transformative, and clearly covered under fair use. I have disavowed the ‘alt-right’ repeatedly, have no association with them, and it’s false and defamatory for Furie and his lawyers to refer to me as alt-right.”

Evan McLaren, executive director of Spencer’s National Policy Institute, said Tuesday that the site has received a letter from Furie’s lawyers but had no comment. In a tweet, Baked Alaska said the frog used in his book “was drawn and created by my graphic artist, not Matt Furie.”

After getting copyright notices from Furie, Amazon.com Inc. stopped selling one Baked Alaska book and a T-shirt used by a man who pepper-sprayed activists at a “Stand Against Hate” rally in New Jersey. Alphabet Inc.’s Google Play has removed a Baked Alaska app called “Build the Wall: The Game” and more than 50 T-shirt designs have been pulled from various sites, Tompros said.

“It absolutely is like playing whack-a-mole,” Tompros said. “We’ve been trying to make the moles a little afraid of popping up.”

Profits Donated

Furie’s efforts started with a self-published book called “The Adventures of Pepe and Pede,” by a Texas school assistant principal who said he was just trying to impart his conservative views. After being threatened with a lawsuit, the author stopped selling the book and agreed to turn over any profits he made to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, according to a press release from Trompros.

The idea to turn to lawyers came after less genteel ways didn’t stop the spread. After the Anti-Defamation League labeled Pepe a hate symbol, Furie has worked with them to try to reclaim the image and began a “save Pepe” campaign. He even did a cartoon killing the frog, though he hasn’t ruled out a resurrection.

The cartoonist isn’t trying to stop the use of Pepe as he was originally intended. After all, Tompros said, Walt Disney Co. "doesn’t go after every kid drawing a Mickey Mouse image.”

“It’s his copyright and he can enforce it against anyone he wants to,” Tompros said. “We’re making the statement that Pepe’s not fair game.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE