Infowars was forced to pay $19,926 in a settlement to the creator of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon amphibian who had been co-opted as a meme by right-wing internet users, after selling a poster that featured the character on its website.
Pepe’s creator, Matt Furie, had brought a copyright lawsuit against Alex Jones’ website after it began selling posters that featured Pepe alongside personalities such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Roger Stone and Diamond and Silk. The victory is another step in Furie’s legal battle to reclaim his character from commercial uses that he finds objectionable.
Louis Tompros, a Boston-based lawyer who represented Furie, said that the artist was happy with the outcome of the Infowars settlement.
“From (Furie’s) perspective, the goal of this was not really about making money and certainly not about going after Alex Jones,” Tompros told the Washington Post. “The goal is to make sure the use of Pepe in association with hateful images and ideas stops, and if anybody thinks they’re going to make any money by selling Pepe hate merchandise, they won’t.”
Furie created Pepe the Frog in the mid-2000s and intended for his creation to be a “peaceful frog-dude” — a kind and blissful cartoon character, who lived alongside three animal roommates,” according to the initial complaint against Infowars. Pepe made his debut in the Boys Club comics and, by 2014, had taken on a second life as a meme.
Read more: What America’s ‘alt-right’ movement wants and what makes it different
But as the 2016 presidential election unfolded, some internet users began deploying the “peaceful frog dude” for less-than-wholesome purposes. Pepe the Frog’s likeness was used in Nazi and white supremacist memes that proliferated across social media and the darker corners of the internet. Donald Trump’s fans also turned Pepe into an unofficial internet mascot for the campaign, and in September 2016 Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its list of “hate symbols.”
Furie and his lawyers sought the profits for the Infowars poster, which came out to about $18,598, Tompros said. The case was scheduled to go to trial later this month, but Tompros’ team was able to reach a settlement with Infowars instead. An additional $1,328 was added to the settlement, bringing the total to $19,926
According to the settlement, Infowars is also required to destroy any existing copies of the poster that remain in its possession or control.
Infowars claimed a “strategic victory” for Jones, calling the sum a “tiny settlement” in a release posted on the website. Infowars lawyer Robert Barnes said in a statement: “Happy to announce the folks suing Infowars over Pepe the Frog have agreed to settle, and accept a licensing fee of $15,000 ($19,926 Canadian).”
Barnes said: “They thought we wouldn’t fight. They thought we wouldn’t win in court. They thought wrong.”
Barnes claimed that Furie was seeking “millions,” which Tompros says is not true. Furie sought only the profits from the poster, he said, to deter further use of Pepe for commercial purposes.
Before taking legal action, Furie had hoped that the Nazi-infused iteration of Pepe memes was “just a phase,” he told the Washington Post in September 2016, and that year launched a social media campaign as well as in-person efforts to reclaim Pepe.
“Ultimately, I hope Pepe will live on as a symbol of peacefulness and of being a cool, chill frog that kids like to share with each other on the internet,” Furie told the Post.
But the Pepe memes continued. According to Tompros, the final straw for Furie was a children’s book published in 2017 called The Adventures of Pepe and Pede, which was written by an assistant principal in Houston and which Furie said “espoused racist, Islamophobic and hate-filled themes.”
Furie worked with Tompros’ firm to enforce his intellectual property rights and stop distribution of the book. Then they started taking it further.
Stopping an internet meme is a nearly impossible feat, and fair-use laws protect some creators who want to riff on Pepe’s image online. But Tompros and his team found a creative legal strategy to help Furie keep Pepe from falling into the wrong hands.
“The focus of our enforcement efforts have been commercial uses of Pepe,” Tompros said. Tompros said that Furie had also enforced his copyright against sites such as the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi internet forum, and r/TheDonald, a Reddit forum for supporters of the president, to prevent them from selling any kind of Pepe-related merchandise.
“For the last year or so we’ve been playing this game of Whack-a-Mole using cease-and-desist letters and the Millennium Copyright Act,” Tompros explained. “Memes are sort of new and the internet spread of memes are certainly a recent phenomenon, but at the end of the day, the copyright principles are reasonably easy to apply in this context, as long as you’re thinking about it precisely and carefully.”
“Matt (Furie’s) going to enforce his copyrights aggressively to make sure nobody else is profiting off associating Pepe the Frog with hateful imagery,” Tompros said.