‘Pepe the Frog’ cartoonist shuts down $4m NFT collection over frog copyright

Artist Matt Furie is best known for creating “Pepe the frog,” the well-intentioned cartoon frog that, upon being co-opted by neo-Nazis online, quickly devolved into an alt-right meme and mascot.

Furie drew the green character for an innocent online comic in 2015, but it quickly grained traction on MySpace and 4Chan for more sinister purposes. By 2015, Pepe had become one of the most popular memes on the internet, primarily used to symbolise the alt-right movement and white-supremacy.

A frustrated Furie took legal action in 2017, when a former educator published an alt-right children’s book using Pepe’s image. With the help of a pro-bono lawyer, Furie managed to halt the distribution of the “racist, Islamaphobic and hate-filled” book, forcing the author to donate all profits to Muslim advocacy organisations. Two years later, Furie won $15,000 in a legal battle with InfoWars over their improper use of his illustration.

Now, Pepe the frog has popped up in the form of an NFT, as reported by Vice. The anonymously-run collection, called “Sad Frogs District,” contained 7,000 NFTs of various illustrated frogs and netted at $4 million in trading volume, but has since been taken down at Furie’s request.

Furie and his team contacted Sad Frogs before its launch to request it be discontinued, or at the very least, steer away from its use of Pepe, but were met with little cooperation, it is claimed. “We are a little afraid that you will enter our server and cause chaos and panic,” ‘Lambo Frog’ replied. Furie was then blocked.

The Sad Frogs moderators allege they were unaware they had been speaking with Furie however, and say they are upset with how the artist handled the situation.

The moderator said they were “disappointed that Matt and the devs couldn’t find a way to work together and find a solution that would have allowed the project to move forward in such a way that respected the artistic integrity of both parties and frog meme culture in general.”

Sad Frogs officially fell when Furie sent a Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown request to OpenSea, the platform on which the NFT was hosted. OpenSea immediately acted on the request, and the collection was promptly removed — leaving the Sad Frogs team, and its investors, high and dry.

“The worst part of the DMCA was the mental toll it took on some members and some mods who helped the community come really far in the first week of being a project,” a moderator known as “old_frog” told Vice. Another, who had bought 121 sad frogs at a total price of $24,870, said the incident pushed them to “the edge of killing myself.” They also said they were losing sleep and were considering selling DFTs to make back their investment.

“Dude, you don’t know the impact this has on people’s life’s. The collection was verified?! I lost 4K $, and I bet a lot of other people lost a lot more. I’m officially out of the NFT game now. This is really horrible, don’t know how I’m gonna deal with this,” a Twitter user, who identifies as “Crypto Gambling Addict [money bag emoji]”, tweeted at Furie.

Dozens of other self-identified Sad Frog investors tweeted at the artist, deploring the takedown that has since left them broke.

Sad Frogs, who asserts they did not rip off Pepe’s image, sent a “counter-notice” to Furie — but it’s unfortunately unrecognisable in the U.S. state of law. The counter-notice  was signed by “Vladimir Vladimirovich,” and they did not provide a mailing address. Furie’s lawyer said that U.S. copyright law does not recognise anonymity in cases like this one.

Still, the Sad Frogs team stands by their collection. “We all believe that Sad Frogs are sufficiently distinct from Pepes and as a result [Furie] deserves no compensation. Perhaps if he helped with the art or creative direction then yes, but clearly he did not,” a moderator told Vice. “I think these memes are all derived from actual frogs and nobody owns the right to solely meme an entire natural species.”

While Furie’s lawyer seems to understand this concern, he remains unable to contact Sad Frogs. “In a normal circumstance…you would then reach out to them…and figure out whether this is something that could be resolved,” Tompros said. “[But] we can’t do that because we’re dealing here with somebody who claims to be Vladimir Vladimirovich.”

“I did not think I would ever be talking to a journalist about cartoon frog money,” he continued. “This whole Pepe saga has been a strange, strange road.”

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