Pepe the Frog: A Comic Character Turned Hate Symbol - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Pepe the Frog: A Comic Character Turned Hate Symbol

Pepe the Frog: A Comic Character Turned Hate Symbol

From crying Michael Jordan1 to Distracted Boyfriend,2 internet memes have become virtually inescapable in the age of social media and hyper-connectivity. But have you ever thought about where these iconic images originated and who owns them, if anyone?3 Do accidental meme creators have any say in the wide-spread dissemination of their work? Feels Good Man, a 2020 film documentary, explores these questions as it chronicles how a benign cartoon frog was misappropriated into a divisive symbol of hate.4

In the early 2000s, San Francisco-based cartoon artist, Matt Furie, shared his original comic Boy’s Club on the internet.5 Among the characters in the trippy series was Pepe the Frog, a peaceful, laid-back character with green skin, red lips, and bulging eyes.6 By 2008, Pepe had managed to catch on as one of the most popular memes across various internet forums, most notably, MySpace, Gaia Online, and 4chan.7 Initially, Furie “scoffed at the idea” of seeking legal copyright protection for his cartoon creation.8 But things quickly changed when various fringe groups connected with the alt-right began co-opting Pepe’s likeness to create memes featuring white supremacist language, Nazi symbols, and other offensive imagery.9 As the filmmakers point out, Pepe was in the crosshairs of a culture war and “was being used by white supremacists, misogynists, teenage fascists, as a way to obfuscate their agenda and also meme their ideas into the public consciousness.”10 In 2016, Pepe was officially declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.11

Furie worked hard to counteract the depiction of Pepe by the alt-right, even collaborating with the Anti-Defamation League on a #SavePepe campaign to restore the character to its kind and peaceful roots.12 In 2017, he turned to U.S. copyright law, requesting Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) takedowns to Google, Reddit, Redbubble, and Amazon for the spread of Pepe’s image and inclusion of Pepe-themed items on their platforms.13 Furie also filed a complaint for copyright infringement against far-right radio show host and founder of Infowars, Alex Jones.14 In the complaint, he alleged that Jones used Pepe’s likeness without permission as part of a promotional poster also featuring alt-right political figures and then presidential candidate Donald Trump.15 Furie also asserted federally registered copyrights to works in which Pepe appeared dating as far back as 2003.16 One such copyright was for a book that Furie had published with Buenaventura Press in 2008.17 Notably, the book “included a copyright page indicating that no part of the publication may be reproduced without the written consent of Furie or Buenaventura.”18 The case ultimately settled for $15,000 in 2019, and Jones agreed to no longer sell the poster and any other merchandise featuring Pepe without a license.19

While Furie was able reclaim his iconic creation, it is unclear whether this case was actually a victory for Pepe the Frog. The suit had sought much more than what was negotiated in the settlement20 and Pepe still remains classified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.21 At the very least, however, this case laid the foundation for protecting the creators behind memes and helped provide clarity on the ownership implications at stake when these images take on new meanings.

  1. See, e.g., Crying Michael Jordan, Know Your Meme, [].

  2. See, e.g., Distracted Boyfriend, Know Your Meme, [].

  3. See Arthur Jones & Giorgio Angelini, FEELS GOOD MAN (PBS Independent Lens Broadcast Oct 19, 2020), (last visited Mar 18, 2021).

  4. Id.

  5. Feels Good Man, Video Project, [].

  6. Id.

  7. Id.

  8. Id.

  9. Id.

  10. Id.

  11. Id. See also, Pepe the Frog, Anti-Defamation League, [].

  12. Id.

  13. Aja Romano, To save Pepe the Frog from the alt-right, his creator has invoked copyright law’s dark side, Vox (2017), [].

  14. Steve Brachmann, Pepe the Frog Creator Files Copyright Suit Against Infowars over Use of Pepe Likeness on Donald Trump Poster, IPWatchdog (Mar. 31, 2018), [].

  15. Id.

  16. Id.

  17. Id.

  18. Id.

  19. Scott Neuman, Alex Jones to Pay $15,000 in Pepe the Frog Copyright Infringement Case, NPR (June 11, 2019), (last visited Mar 18, 2021) [].

  20. Id.

  21. See Pepe the Frog, Anti-Defamation League, [].

Eleni Venetos

Eleni Venetos is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and Communications from Boston College.