The creator of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon amphibian adopted as a far-right mascot during the 2016 presidential campaign, has successfully sued in recent years to keep his creation from appearing on white nationalist websites, alt-right Reddit forums and the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.
On Monday, the conspiracy website Infowars became the latest online venue to say goodbye to Pepe, when it settled a lawsuit filed by the cartoonist, Matt Furie, over a poster it sold in 2017 and 2018 that featured the frog alongside images of President Donald Trump and Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars.
Under the terms of the settlement, Infowars agreed to give Furie all of its profits from the poster — which amounted to US$14,000 — and an additional US$1,000 that the cartoonist said he would donate to an amphibian conservation charity, Save the Frogs.
"What we asked for at the beginning of the case is for Infowars to stop selling the poster and to turn over all of their profits," Louis Tompros, a lawyer for Furie, said Monday. "Anyone who is going to make money using Pepe as an image of hate is not something Mr. Furie has ever authorised and is not something he is going to tolerate."
Furie sued Infowars in March 2018 in the Central District of California, where he lives. In a December deposition in the case, Jones said he thought there was something bigger than money at stake.
"It's about the First Amendment, and it's about free speech. That's why I'm doing this," he said. "I don't want Pepe. I don't want anywhere near it. I hate it. I can't sit here and be called a white supremacist because I sold the damn poster and be defamed."
As part of the settlement, Infowars agreed to destroy all remaining copies of the poster, which it stopped selling after Furie sued. It also said it would not sell Pepe's "character, image or likeness" in the future without a license, which Tompros said would not be forthcoming.
"This is not a licensing agreement, it is a settlement agreement," Tompros said.
But in the through-the-looking-glass world of the internet, Infowars — a site known for airing conspiracy theories that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax — cast itself as the victor on Monday.
"They thought we wouldn't fight," Robert Barnes, a lawyer for the site, said in a statement. "They thought we wouldn't win in court. They thought wrong."
(Neither side won in court. Because Infowars settled the lawsuit, the case never went to trial.)
"We will always stand up for the rights of the people, and will never be bullied by lawsuits, even those brought by big corporate law firms with $1,000/hour lawyers," the statement said. It added: "So, the Pepe trial is over. We made our point."
Pepe began life in the early 2000s as a laid-back frog with stoner eyes and a crew of anthropomorphic roommates in a comic that Furie drew from 2005 to 2012. The artist has described Pepe as a "peaceful frog‐dude" with a "blissful" attitude whose catchphrase was "feels good man."
But as so often happens, prolonged exposure to the internet led Pepe down a dark path.
By 2015, he had been adopted as a sort of chaos demon of the online alt-right, whose members cast him in countless memes promoting far-right nihilism, anti-Semitic paranoia or white nationalist politics.
The character also became a favorite of online Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign, when both Trump and his son Donald Jr. were criticized for sharing memes that included the frog on their social media accounts.
Furie began to fight back in 2017, killing off the character in a cartoon and using the courts to clear the good name of his creation, which was classified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League in 2016.
His first successful legal action stopped the use of Pepe in a children's book that his lawyers said "espoused racist, Islamophobic and hate-filled themes, included allusions to the alt-right movement."
In the statement Monday, Barnes, the Infowars lawyer, described the $15,000 payment to Furie as "a licensing fee." Later, he said he considered it to be "equivalent to a licensing fee for prior use." Tompros said that view of the settlement was "just incorrect."
"They can characterise it however they want to characterise it, but it is very clear that they are not allowed to sell anything with Pepe on it unless they have a license," Tompros said. "And they have no license.
"The point of this case against Alex Jones and the point of all of Mr. Furie's enforcement regarding Pepe the Frog is no one should think they are going to make money based on hateful Pepe merchandise," he added. "All the money Infowars made, they don't have it anymore. They had to turn it over."
Written by: Liam Stack
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES