Soon after the 7th January 2015 massacre, some journalists embraced the expression “Je suis Charlie” to support freedom of speech. The slogan spread to the Internet at large, displayed on mobile phones, it was used as the hashtag on Twitter and printed on t-shirts.

Within a couple of days, the expression had become one of the most popular slogan in the history, so that the French Trademark Office received more than 50 trademark applications concerning the expression "Je Suis Charlie", as reported by the BBC.

Probably the same is happening with regard to Italian Trademark Office.

Interestingly enough, in a recent press release, the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) stated that “As a general rule, OHIM's policy is not to comment on any individual cases of trade mark or design applications either before examination or at any stage of the application and registration cycle. However, the IP issues surrounding the registration of the "Je suis Charlie" mark could be considered to be of overriding public interest. Therefore, according to OHIM's Guidelines for Examination on Community Trade Marks (Part B, Section 4), an application which consisted of or which contained the phrase "Je suis Charlie" would probably be subject to an objection under Article 7 (1) (f) of the Community Trade Mark Regulation, due to the fact that the registration of such a trade mark could be considered "contrary to public order or to accepted principles of morality" and also on the basis of Artice 7(1)(b) as being devoid of distinctive character.”

Without engaging in any moral debate here, from a legal perspective this leads to a few questions:

  • Can the sentence “Je Suis Charlie” be considered a copyrighted work?

According to the well-established Italian case law, a short expression cannot be a protected work, even if it has reached reputation.

  • Can the sentence “Je Suis Charlie” be registered as a trademark?  

We do not believe so. The registration of the phrase as a trademark could be refused due to the lack of distinctive character, as it would be very unlikely for this sentence be perceived by the relevant public as an indication of the commercial origin of the goods and services concerned; and it could be refused because the contrary to public policy or morality.

  • Can the sentence “Je Suis Charlie” be used in a advertising slogan?

Probably, yes. The phrase has quickly become a commonly used expression in order claim the freedom of expression and, putting aside ethical issues, there are no reasons preventing companies from associating their corporate image with this expression.