The cartoonist who created Pepe the Frog has sued conspiracy-promoting website Infowars for selling a poster copying the character, which became hijacked by racist internet trolls and far-right extremists.
The copyright infringement lawsuit, filed on Monday in Los Angeles, is the second that California-based cartoonist Matt Furie has brought as part of a legal campaign to reclaim his creation.
Infowars’ website is the online platform for right-wing radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Furie’s lawsuit says he didn’t authorise the site to sell a poster that depicts the anthropomorphic frog alongside images of Jones, US President Donald Trump, far-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos and other right-wing figures.
Jones described the lawsuit as a “publicity stunt”. Although he stressed that Infowars didn’t produce the poster, Jones said he views it as an expression of political speech protected by the First Amendment.
“My listeners understand this is all frivolous,” Jones told The Associated Press. “We don’t have any choice but to fight back, and the law is on our side.”
Infowars is selling the Pepe-adorned MAGA (Make America Great Again) poster for $29.95 (£21) and says it was created by “renowned artist and patriot” Jon Allen. Jones said Infowars has sold about 1,000 of the posters but added that it’s hardly one of the site’s most popular items.
“I think the frog is stupid looking. I think it’s a dumb meme,” he said.
Last June, Furie launched a Save Pepe crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money for a new comic book. He also enlisted help from lawyers to pursue legal action against people who appeared to be profiting from Pepe’s image without his permission.
“I think there has been progress,” said Louis Tompros, one of Furie’s lawyers. “It is a little bit like whack-a-mole, candidly.”
In October, Furie sued a woman in Kansas City, Missouri, for allegedly selling oil paintings featuring Pepe, including one in which a masked Pepe is holding a rifle in front of what appears to be the White House. The case is still pending.
Tompros said white nationalist Richard Spencer and other far-right fringe figures have complied with written requests to stop using Pepe’s likeness without permission.
However, Tompros said Furie’s lawyers didn’t email and mail requests for Infowars to remove the poster from its online store until after they filed the lawsuit.
Furie’s “chill frog-dude” debuted in a 2006 comic book called “Boy’s Club” and became a popular canvas for benevolent internet memes. But the user-generated mutations grew increasingly extreme and ubiquitous more than a year before the 2016 presidential election.
Furie has said he was horrified to see his creation become an online mascot for white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists. The Anti-Defamation League branded Pepe a hate symbol in September 2016 and promoted Furie’s efforts to reclaim the character.
Jones said he views the MAGA poster as a symbol of the 2016 campaign.
“Everybody knows I’m not a white supremacist. I’m not into that crap,” Jones said. “This is just purely harassment.”
Texas-based parent companies Infowars LLC and Free Speech Systems LLC are named as defendants in the lawsuit.