VOL. 130 | NO. 33 | Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Social Media Now Integral to Protest
By Carl Eppler
It may not seem intuitive to connect intellectual property rights with a human tragedy, but the two intersect more often than we realize.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last month, people throughout the world showed solidarity with the victims via social media under the hashtag “#jesuischarlie.” The slogan “Je Suis Charlie” also became a rallying cry for many demonstrations that followed the attack.
Yet 48 hours later, someone in the U.S. filed a trademark application for the phrase.
The applicant, the Je Suis Charlie Trust, is seeking to trademark the phrase for “promoting charitable giving.”
The application claims the first use of the mark in commerce was “at least as early” as the day of the attacks, though it is unclear how the Je Suis Charlie Trust itself was part of that “use in commerce.”
Also of note is the attorney-of-record and trustee for the applicant of the mark, Steven J. Stanwyck, who was disbarred from the practice of law in California in 2012.
It is also unclear whether the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will grant the registration. Past attempts to turn social movements into trademarks have not fared well.
For example, “Occupy Wall Street” was rejected from trademark registration. Among the reasons for refusal: the “Occupy Wall Street” name had already been associated with multiple movements for social and economic change.
As a result, the phrase “Occupy Wall Street” would be perceived by the public not as a trademark originating from a single source, but as a reference to many social movements. Also, because “merely informational” slogans or phrases do not function as trademarks, the USPTO rejected the application.
Attempts to trademark “Boston Strong” for charitable purposes met the same end.
Such is the power of organic social media — slogans and rallying cries can travel faster than ever before, thereby having no true “single source.” We don’t know yet whether “Je Suis Charlie” will meet the same fate, but with the global response to the attack under that slogan happening in a matter of hours, it is likely to be rejected as a trademark.
We are long past the “rise” of social media as a medium for protest. Twitter and Facebook are now as integral to garnering attention for social change as the sit-in was in the 1960s. As a result, hashtag-activism won’t go away any time soon.
With 140 characters or less, would-be activists can have the attention of the world with a poignant slogan.
Despite the initial distaste one may have at the thought of someone capitalizing on tragedy, there may be a more legitimate reason for seeking trademark protection in these contexts — to prevent others from capitalizing on tragedy.
If the “Je Suis Charlie” application truly is related to a charity, securing a trademark registration may help deter unscrupulous interlopers looking to make a quick buck. Such defensive use of a trademark may not have been intended in this case, but it does show the forethought one must have when pushing for social change in today’s digital landscape.
Carl Eppler is an attorney with Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs and a member of the law firm’s Intellectual Property Protection & Litigation Service Team.