Trademarked or not, 'Je suis Charlie' commercialisation steps up

Yesterday we reported on a Benelux trademark application for ‘Je suis Charlie’, the phrase adopted across the globe following last week’s  mass murders at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. We concluded that trademark offices bear a significant responsibility with applications that relate to tragic incidents. Today, as further applications have come to light, offices are now wrestling with this responsibility, in one instance taking a firm stance. Concurrently, commercialisation continues apace.

The Benelux trademark was the first reported attempt to secure ownership of the phrase and, speaking to The Independent, applicant Yanick Uytterhaegen explained that he hoped “to do something to help the victims of this horrible terrorist attack” by licensing the trademark to benefit the Charlie Hebdo publication. However, the backlash that followed his move appears to have led to the withdrawal of the trademark earlier today.

Elsewhere, others continue to pursue applications.  The French trademark office, the INPI, has issued a press release explaining that it had outright rejected at least 50 trademark applications for the phrase, stating (translated to English): “Since January 7, INPI has received many applications for trademarks ‘Je suis Charlie’ or referring to the slogan. INPI has decided not to register the trademark applications because they do not meet the distinctiveness criteria. This slogan will not be perceived as a trademark because of its wide use by the community”.

Responding to this move, EIP trademark attorney Sharon Daboul told WTR that INPI’s grounds for refusal - that the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ is not distinctive – is “interesting” and “an unusual step”, adding:  “A blanket refusal for lack of distinctive character was not one I was expecting, particularly as trademark applications are examined with regard to the goods and services applied for. It looks as though the French Trademark Office is trying to avoid a discussion as to whether an application for ‘Je Suis Charlie’ really is contrary to public policy or morality, by refusing the applications on this ground instead. Refusing a trademark application on the ground that it has been used so frequently on social media and in the press in the past week that it is no longer distinctive, is an approach I have not come across before.”

David Taylor, a partner at Hogan Lovells in Paris, labelled the ‘Je suis Charlie’ trademark applications as “misguided”, “overreaching” and “insensitive”, and welcomed the French office’s move, stating: “There is no real surprise in the INPI's decision and I am fairly sure that there is a political unwillingness to let a slogan such as this be appropriated by any specific entity when it has been so used by the general public and the acts at the source of the slogan are so fresh in people’s minds. I think that the INPI has saved everyone time and effort and avoided potential opposition proceedings when such resources and attention could be directed elsewhere, to the families of those killed and the principles of freedom of expression which we hold so dearly. In a capitalist society there appears to be no end to the attempts some people will go to make a quick buck and, unfortunately, attempts to trademark such slogans that have been born out of tragedy are becoming all too common. We sometimes have to deal with overreaching brand owners, here we have overreaching and insensitive trademark applicants.”

Reflecting the global adoption of the phrase, trademark applications are not restricted to Europe. A USPTO application was filed yesterday and The Australian newspaper reports a similar filing in Australia (WTR has not been able to verify this to date). In terms of these, Daboul doubts any other office will take a similar approach to the INPI, explaining: “Depending on the goods and services designated by the applicant, I would not expect other registries to refuse the marks on the lack of distinction grounds alone.”

That is not so say, though, that applications will be successful – as we outlined yesterday, they will likely not.

As all of this plays out, the phrase is being monetised, with people flocking online to capitalise on the profile surrounding the slogan (at the time of writing, eBay has 5,500 items for sale relating to the slogan, Amazon has 550 items, Etsy has 350 and Alibaba has 50 for sale). Such commercialisation has been condemned by Joachim Roncin, creator and first user of the ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan. Ironically, were the trademark rights to reside with a responsible owner, such as the creator of the logo, they would be able to take action against those trying to make money on the back of the phrase. It would certainly be shameful if the powerful message at the centre of the slogan is lost in a flurry of commercialisation. 

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