The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is processing two applications to trademark the phrase “Je Suis Charlie,” a phrase that was embraced internationally to show solidarity after the Paris massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in early January.
One application, from a trust in California, lists its purpose for seeking the trademark as “charitable” in nature. The other, from the Latin American Trading Group in Florida, seeks control of the phrase’s commercial use on a long list of products, including clothing, footwear bags, luggage, and several types of dining ware.
Both applications to lock up “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) were filed soon after the Jan. 7 massacre and are still pending with the federal office. But if past attempts to trademark news-driven rallying cries are any indication, it seems very unlikely that either application could succeed.
In fact, trademark lawyer Robert Ledesma, a former examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, blogged about why applications to trademark “Je Suis Charlie” aren’t a good idea before the current applications were filed. He wrote:
I write this post on the off chance that anyone considering filing a trademark application for JE SUIS CHARLIE — or any future trending rallying cries — finds it, reads it and reconsiders. Here’s why:
- The USPTO will refuse your application.
- You will not get your money back.
- You may be publicly ridiculed.
So don’t even try. It’s as simple as that.”
It costs, at minimum, $275 to file a trademark application, whether it’s approved or rejected.
To flesh out his cautionary tale, Ledesma flagged a couple of failed trademark applications, including one for “Boston Strong.” That phrase became popular after the Boston Marathon bombings.
In rejecting the “Boston Strong” application, the Patent and Trademark Office wrote that “the applied-for mark merely conveys an informational social, political, religious, or similar kind of message; it does not function as a trademark or service mark to indicate the source of applicant’s goods and/or services and to identify and distinguish them from others.”
Steven Stanwyck, one of two people who filed the California-based application, said in an email that the trust applied for the trademark because “we see these events as having an identifiable potential to provide a platform for religious respect.” Stanwyck said the trust’s trademark bid pertains to “respectful discourse platforms we hope to positively encourage.”
He is confident his application will succeed and told The Post that he “would have not made the application, as was, unless we believed in it for the charitable purposes stated.”
Stanwyck has even sent a cease-and-desist letter to Charlie Hebdo over use of the phrase “Je Suis Charlie.” The Jan. 12 letter notes that the trust “will entertain any serious licensing, or other arrangements, you may suggest in writing.” Stanwyck said that he hasn’t yet heard back from the French magazine.
The prospect of someone, somewhere, filing a trademark application for any phrase that goes viral has started to feel inevitable. Last month, an Illinois woman applied to trademark “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner as he died from an apparent chokehold by a New York police officer. That application is awaiting the results of an examination.
The federal agency recently refused to register a trademark for the Ferguson rallying cry “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
These applications, as Ledesma notes, tend to make the applicant kind of unpopular. The ALS Association learned this after it filed multiple applications for “Ice Bucket Challenge,” in the middle of the viral video trend that was largely, but not exclusively, associated with the group’s charity work. The ALS Association ended up withdrawing the applications after public outcry.
Stanwyck says the response to his own application has been “so far positive,” directing The Post to an interview he gave to the World Intellectual Property Review. “In the context of a social/religious/ethical platform, we hope to be perceived properly. We believe that the more chance you give us to explain, the better,” Stanwyck said.
The effort to claim some ownership over the “Je Suis Charlie” phrase is not an exclusively American enterprise, as it turns out. An Australian family trust filed applications to trademark “Je Suis Charlie” and “Charlie Hebdo” in Australia five days after the massacre.
And a resident of Belgium also made a similar request for trademark in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The attorneys listed for the Florida-based trademark application did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.