Since Pepe, the sad cartoon frog, broke through to the mainstream in the worst way possible last year — described as a symbol of white supremacy by Hillary Clinton’s campaign — his creator, Matt Furie, has undertaken an effort to reclaim the frog as a creature of love. Completely reclaiming a meme once it’s gone viral, and trying to control its use once it’s been remixed and shared millions of times, is a near-futile act. But you can at least make life hard for the most prominent people misusing it — especially if you have a good lawyer.
According to Motherboard, Furie has taken legal action against a slew of popular alt-right figureheads who have made use of his character, including Mike Cernovich, Richard Spencer, and r/The_Donald, the subreddit where thousands of Trump supporters gather.
Furie and his lawyer, Louis Tompros, have been using DMCA takedown to get unflattering uses of Pepe removed from social media and from sites like Amazon, where bad rapper and mace recipient Baked Alaska used Pepe on the cover of his self-published book. Tompros told Motherboard that the subreddit r/The_Donald uses Pepe as a mascot to get people to subscribe, and that Cernovich has used a 3-D model of Pepe in a video mocking Hillary Clinton. (As of this afternoon, r/The_Donald appears to have removed Pepe from the forum.)
Furie’s forward march is just one front of the war to liberate Pepe — Apple has put down a blanket ban on using the character in its App Store — and his tactic of using copyright law is being adopted more widely in efforts to make it just a little bit more of a pain to create alt-right or otherwise hateful content online. Last week, after the popular video-game streamer PewDiePie was recorded saying the N-word on a stream, a video-game developer filed DMCA to get video of PewDiePie playing their game removed from YouTube. Weaponizing DMCA notices is about to become a lot more prominent as a reprisal tactic, but its full implications are yet unknown. The web has long been built on copyright infringement, but that infringement is defined by laws crafted before the rise of YouTube and mainstream social media. Now, that broad unspoken agreement is being pushed to its breaking point.