Matt Furie drew the alt-right’s favorite cartoon frog. Now he is leading one of the most successful legal campaigns against the racist right.
More than a decade has passed since Furie first drew a stoned-looking frog named “Pepe” and uploaded it to Myspace. The frog rose from MySpace in-joke to popular meme, before being taken up as an unofficial mascot of internet neo-Nazis during the 2016 presidential primaries. Since then, Furie has been leading a campaign to reclaim his creation, filing copyright infringement complaints against white nationalist Richard Spencer, conspiracy news site InfoWars,
This week he won another battle, pressuring neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer into deleting most of their Pepes, as Motherboard reported.
Though a cartoon frog might seem an unlikely mascot for the racist right, a leaked version of The Daily Stormer’s style guide explains the strategy.
“The tone of the site should be light,” reads the style guide, which leaked to HuffPost last year. “Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred. The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not … This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes.”
Recognizable memes like Pepe are an easy stand-in for humor.
“We basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc. We built that association,” a white supremacist Twitter user told The Daily Beast in 2016 of the campaign to make Pepe a gateway meme to the alt-right.
Furie was initially casual about the frog’s incorporation into meme culture.
“I get emails pretty regularly, from kids, from high schools, who need my permission to use Pepe in their senior shirts, or their clarinet club, or their photography clubs,” Furie told The Atlantic in 2016. “I tell them to go ahead as long as they sell me a shirt.”
But soon Pepes proliferated across sites like The Daily Stormer, prompting the Anti-Defamation League to designate the cartoon as a hate symbol, and inspiring Furie to lawyer up.
Furie’s first copyright claim came last August against the author of The Adventures of Pepe and Pede, a children’s book with a thinly veiled anti-Muslim message. The kid’s book followed Pepe the frog and Pede the centipede (Redditors on the r/the_donald refer to each other as “Pedes,” short for centipedes) as they took on an evil bearded alligator named “Alkah.”
The book’s publishers, the conservative Post Hill Press, said the Pepe in the book was the author’s creation.
“There’s no hidden messages here,” Anthony Ziccardi, a spokesman for Post Hill Press told The Washington Post at the time. “There’s no hidden agenda. He created this character and he didn’t realize all the backlash that was going to come from it — and quite frankly, neither did I. … Really, the ultimate theme is law and order. This is a feel-good story in support of good versus evil. And that’s what we should be embracing.”
But the book’s author soon admitted to copyright infringement and struck a settlement with Furie that barred all future sales and donated all proceeds to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, a major law firm, signed on to represent Furie pro bono. In September 2017, the firm sent cease and desists requests to right-wing internet personalities that had co-opted Pepe, including Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and alt-right YouTuber Baked Alaska. Reddit’s r/the_donald, Amazon, and YouTube, also received takedown notices for their Pepe content.
Spencer had previously used Pepe in the logo for his podcast. He was also wearing a Pepe pin and explaining the meme to a reporter when he was infamously punched in the face outside President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Furie also has a pending takedown battle with InfoWars, which was selling a $29.95 poster featuring Pepe alongside Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos, and InfoWars found Alex Jones. (The poster does not currently appear available on InfoWars’ store.)
The Daily Stormer chronicled a number of Furie’s takedown requests, including his May battle with InfoWars. But this week, the Stormer quietly pulled most of its own Pepes after a takedown request from WilmerHale. The Pepes had only lasted this long because of The Daily Stormer’s chronic webhosting troubles.
“The Daily Stormer has been a bit of an annoyance, frankly,” Louis Tompros, a WilmerHale lawyer told Motherboard. “For reasons separate and apart from copyright infringement, [The Daily Stormer has] been rejected and shut down by a variety of different ISPs over time.”The Daily Stormer’s founder, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, helped coordinate the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. After the rally, a series of web hosting companies booted Stormer from their services, sending the site onto the dark web or offline entirely. The site has since jumped from host company to host company, sometimes several in one month, hosting records show.
Tompros told Motherboard that the Stormer started using a U.S.-based company in early July, and that WilmerHale was able to serve them with a Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice.
The Daily Stormer, which has authored a series articles attacking Furie and his campaign to reclaim Pepe, quietly pulled its cartoon frogs.