A little over a year ago, we discussed Matt Furie, the creator of the Pepe the Frog character that became an alt-right meme sensation, suing Infowars for selling posters featuring his character. That post was fraught with subtle takes, frankly, largely the result of Furie’s wishy-washy history over how he protected his creation, or not, and the fact that the other side of the story was Infowars. Infowars is of course a conspiracy-mongering lie-factory run by play-acting assclowns that make gobs of money by getting followers to harass the parents of dead children and then selling those same followers merchandise and diet pills.
A better description of the hellscape that is 2019 cannot be found.
Still, Furie’s decision to sue Infowars despite his previously being cool with people making memes out of the Pepe character made it clear that his reason for suing was a moral one, in that he didn’t want Pepe to be used alongside hateful content. Copyright, meanwhile, is meant to be deployed on economic grounds, making this all quite murky. On top of that, meme culture could be threatened by these types of actions, all over a moral dispute that really has no place in terms of copyright enforcement.
Well, in keeping with the theme, Furie’s moral dispute has resulted in a moral victory of sorts, with Infowars agreeing to settle out of court for $15k and both sides claiming victory. First, the facts on the settlement.
Infowars was forced to pay $15,000 in a settlement to the creator of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon amphibian who had been co-opted as a meme by right-wing internet users, after selling a poster that featured the character on its website.
Per Furie’s side of the equation, the paltry sum was by design. Furie has stated publicly through his lawyers that this wasn’t meant to be a money grab. Instead, it was meant to deter other groups that would seek to re-purpose Pepe for hateful speech. This, again, is simply not the purpose of copyright law. Furie can be permissive with the image being used by some and restrictive for others, but the fact that copyright law allows this is a bug and not a feature.
Infowars, meanwhile, is spinning this as a complete victory due to the small amount of money in the settlement.
Infowars claimed a “strategic victory” for Jones, calling the sum a “tiny settlement” in a release posted on the website. Infowars lawyer Robert Barnes said in a statement: “Happy to announce the folks suing Infowars over Pepe the Frog have agreed to settle, and accept a licensing fee of $15,000.”
Barnes said: “They thought we wouldn’t fight. They thought we wouldn’t win in court. They thought wrong.”
How truthful you think Infowars is being in labeling this as any kind of victory aside, the fact that it can put out statements like this undercuts the moral argument question to at least some degree. If Furie’s purpose in using copyright law to claim a moral victory rested on deterrence, Infowars’ statement sure doesn’t send the kind of message that will result in deterrence at all. Instead, the copyright lawsuit almost looks like a pass-through cost.
As for Furie’s side, even the victory lap his lawyers took makes it clear that this is all about a moral stance.
“For the last year or so we’ve been playing this game of Whack-a-Mole using cease-and-desist letters and the Millennium Copyright Act,” Tompros explained. “Memes are sort of new and the internet spread of memes are certainly a recent phenomenon, but at the end of the day, the copyright principles are reasonably easy to apply in this context, as long as you’re thinking about it precisely and carefully.”
“Matt (Furie’s) going to enforce his copyrights aggressively to make sure nobody else is profiting off associating Pepe the Frog with hateful imagery,” Tompros said.
Except that doesn’t really do the job, does it? Unless Furie wants to expand his Pepe war on non-commercial uses, much of which would likely be protected Fair Use, the hateful imagery is absolutely going to continue. Dancing in the end zone by claiming that commercial uses will heretofore cease seems like the hollowest of victories.
So what was all of this for? A tiny settlement awarded to a creator that didn’t like how his content was being used in some instances with the defendant claiming a strategic victory. It’s hard to see how that isn’t a waste of everyone’s time.