I am Charlie, I am not a trademark

Published onJanuary 2015

Everybody knows by now what dreadful and terrible events occurred in France last January 7. And many people worldwide also know about the phrase adopted by supporters of such French republican values as freedom of speech or secularism.

This slogan is JE SUIS CHARLIE – I AM CHARLIE.

It seems there is no debate over who “invented” or came up with this phrase in the first place. It is commonly credited to Joachim Roncin on Twitter, a few minutes after the killings.

However an issue soon arose as people in France and abroad (especially in the Benelux and in the United States) were trying to take advantage of this rallying cry by filing trademark applications covering various types of goods and services.

Thankfully the public was shocked and upset by these attempts of mercantile appropriation, including Joachim Roncin himself as he stated in a recent interview for French newspaper Le Figaro.

As regards trademark law and practice, the decision by the French Patent and Trademark Office (INPI) to reject all trademark applications containing the phrase JE SUIS CHARLIE must be recognized. The INPI even issued an official statement to explain the decision, according to which (i) the French trademarks were refused on absolute grounds for lack of distinctive character and (ii) the phrase could not be monopolized by a sole business because of its widespread use by the public.

As a matter of fact, if a name, sign or slogan is widely used by the public, it cannot perform its essential function as a trademark i.e. identifying the origin or source of the goods and services covered by the mark. In such a case, the public does not perceive the phrase as a badge of origin but “merely” as a rallying cry conveying a message and expressing adhesion to a particular idea.

That is the very reason why French Highest Civil Court, the Cour de cassation, has issued a decision confirming the invalidation of such trademarks as those reproduced below (Commercial chamber, 6 January 2015, case 13-17108).

Beyond moral considerations, it consequently seems safe to say that the phrase JE SUIS CHARLIE will not become a trademark, at least not in France (but trademark applications were filed in foreign countries such as in the U.S.) and not in the near future (but it cannot be ruled out that sometime in the future the phrase would be forgotten and become eligible to trademark protection).

© INSCRIPTA