Phrase made famous by Paris terror attack has already been the subject of more than 50 trade mark applications in Europe

An attempt to trade mark the symbolic rallying cry ‘Je suis Charlie’ phrase that became a symbol of resistance to terror following attacks in Paris is unlikely to succeed.

It has since come to light that more than 50 applications have been made to trade mark the slogan in France, although all were ultimately rejected.

One applicant based outside of France is Belgian businessman, Yanick Uytterhaegen, who filed an application with the Benelux Office for Intellectual Property.

The businessman told The Independent he planned to licence the phrase to raise funds for the families of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed by terrorists in Paris. He suggested he would use the phrase on merchandise such as t-shirts, toys, food and Christmas decorations across the Benelux countries.

While Uytterhaegen has since withdrawn his application, having become a public hate figure on social media, if he had been successful, the trade mark would have given him sole rights to the phrase across Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Chris McLeod, president of the UK Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, believes it is highly unlikely that any attempt at registration of this particular mark will be successful as it contravenes Article 3 of European Directive 2008/95/EC.

“Aside from matters of taste, the law itself is very clear on such issues,” said McLeod. “When a slogan such as ‘Je suis Charlie’ is part of a popular movement, and already in the public domain, any attempt to claim unique ownership of the phrase is all but impossible. Any judgment by the Benelux authorities will certainly take this into account.”

McLeod highlights the point by referring to previous cases where popular movements have retained their public right to a logo or phrase. “Just last year the ‘Northern Soul’ movement in the UK celebrated the defeat of a trade mark application that would have conferred unique ownership of its distinctive logo. By comparison, this was a relatively niche movement.

“The mass movement, supported by millions inside and outside of France, that already claims ownership of ‘Je suis Charlie’, will almost certainly prevail against the claims of one individual. While there is a general convention that the first to file a trade mark can often claim ownership, there are important exceptions.”

McLeod continued: “Trade mark law is not about granting unfair monopolies over brands and phrases – but rather about protecting the consumer and allowing those with a legitimate claim to a brand to make the most of their own hard work. No trade mark authority is ever likely to rule that ‘Je suis Charlie’ belongs to anyone other than the popular movement that created it – or the Charlie Hebdo staff themselves.”

This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 14 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission.

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