In the past few years, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has received numerous trademark applications for phrases created from political and social movements. Currently, the USPTO is considering two trademark applications for “Je Suis Charlie,” a phrase created in response to the terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris on January 7th, 2015.

Social media exploded in support of the newspaper, with #jesuischarlie becoming one of the most popular hastags in Twitter history. Capitalizing on the success of the trend, a charitable trust in California and the Latin American Trading Group filed trademark applications with the USPTO a few days after the attacks. While the California trust seeks to use the mark to “[promote] charitable giving that reflects the core values of the donor by providing a method to identify the donor’s core values and to select charities that foster those values,” the Latin American Trading Group hopes to use the mark for commercial purposes on such items as clothing, bags, luggage, suitcases, and backpacks.

While the two applicants were quick to submit their applications and gain early access to the growing popularity of the phrase, it is not entirely clear whether their efforts will be successful. The USTO has not been receptive to trademark registrations of phrases arising from social movements. The application for the phrase “Boston Strong,” which arose from the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, was rejected by the USPTO because it was did not serve the correct purpose of a trademark. Instead of distinguishing the source of the mark, “Boston Strong” merely “convey[ed] an informational social, political, religious, or similar kind of message.” “Occupy Wall Street” also met similar opposition at the USPTO.

While not explicitly stated, the USPTO may be reluctant to grant registrations of this type because of a fear that disinterested parties may try to capitalize on every social movement in the future. Public interest may also align with the decisions of the USPTO, with many believing commercialization of phrases like “Je Suis Charlie” and “Boston Strong” runs contrary to the purpose of such social movements. The ALS Association experienced large amounts of pushback when trying to trademark the “Ice Bucket Challenge” and eventually withdrew its applications due to such negative publicity.

Whether the USPTO will grant the “Je Suis Charlie” applications remains open to question. If the United States follows international trends, the mark will surely be rejected, as France has already rejected over 50 applications for the phrase and an individual in Belgium withdrew his application shortly after filing.

Dustin Kovacic

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