The Lion that is “Je Suis Charlie”


Have you ever said “How did that happen?”, “How much do you have?” or “Can’t wait!”? Did you know that these are all trademarked phrases? They’re respectively owned by Partners in Leadership, Coinstar, and Bart Scott. When you really think about it, almost anything you say has been trademarked or attempted to be trademarked. While these phrases are seemingly harmless, what would happen if someone tried to trademark a phrase which was meant to stand for a social cause, such as freedom of speech? Would the act of trademarking the phrase in itself take away from the message which is trying to be conveyed?

This is the problem facing the trending phrase “Je Suis Charlie”. Since January 7, 2015 over 120 patents have been filed unsuccessfully to try and trademark the popular phrase. Even the designer, Joachim Roncin, who created the iconic white and grey text logo was unable to obtain a trademark patent for the phrase. The France patent office has cited that there is a “lack of distinctiveness” in the phrase which prevents them from granting a patent; however, considering the gravity which inspired the “Je Suis Charlie” movement, many are supportive of this decision.

The phrase was inspired by the shooting at Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, when two gunmen armed with AK-47s and shotguns entered the office and murdered 10 staff members and 2 policemen, and injured another 12 other people.  Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine publisher based in France, has produced a number of controversial Muslim cartoons since 2006; in particular, they have published a number of cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammed in situations that are offensive to the Muslim Community. In fact, there have been incidents with this publisher in the past, namely a firebombing in 2011 and several smaller riots, but nothing on the scale that is the social media phenomenon that is “Je Suis Charlie”.

In the aftermath of the shooting, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” was formed to show solidarity for the magazine’s efforts and to support the idea of freedom of speech. However, it has since taken on a life of its own and has quickly becoming a means for people to capitalize on the misfortune of what has happened. Many merchandisers have taken advantage of society’s desire to jump on the bandwagon that is the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign and have created t-shirts, buttons and other trinkets as a show of support for the cause. Naturally given the consumeristic nature of our society these items have flown off the shelves.

In essence there are a few arguments to consider:

  • If the phrase had been trademarked, would it have put a stop to the shameless consumerism which has since capitalized on the tragic event? Or would they have then become an advocate for the idea of free speech and allowed people to continue using the phrase?
  • If the phrase remains free, what will people do in the name of “Je Suis Charlie”? There have already been extremists who threaten to avenge the deaths of the victims by hacking into the social media accounts and websites of the terrorist group responsible for the attack, what other actions are they willing to take

As the frenzy continues with the message “Je Suis Charlie” appearing everywhere from street graffiti to celebrity accessories, one thing is for sure, attempting to trademark a phrase associated with a social cause is akin to trying to keep a lion in a cat’s cage.


About: Tracey McKenna

Tracey McKenna is a communications professional who graduated with a Masters in Literary Studies, specializing in adaptation theory, from the University of Waterloo. Her experiences include preparing literary reviews, research papers, critiques and various forms of business communication. With a penchant for writing and keeping up with trends, she is excited to join the IPEye team and to create articles which explore the realm of IP and emerging markets, particularly regarding education and media.

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