Last June, Walter Palmer, an American dentist and recreational big game hunter, shot and killed Cecil, a southwest African lion who had been the subject of a study by Oxford University and a major attraction for Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. At first, Cecil’s killing drew international outrage and media attention, the hashtag #CecilTheLion spreading like wildfire on social media. Then it drew trademark applications.
At least four different applicants currently have live trademark applications pending in the United States for CECIL THE LION, covering everything from the noble, including charitable fundraising services and information and news commentary relating to wildlife conservation, to the commercial, including dolls, trading cards, and charms.
Cecil’s case wasn’t unique in 2015. In the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, the hashtag #jesuischarlie (French for “I am Charlie”) emerged as a way for people around their world to show solidarity in light of the massacre. At its height in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, #jesuischarlie was tweeted at a rate of 6,500 times per minute and was included in 3.4 million tweets in under a 24 hour period, making it one of the most popular hashtags in history. Beyond the solidarity for victims that the hashtag expresses on its face, it also came to be understood as a means of communicating support for freedom of expression and free speech principles generally. It too prompted a trademark rush. Just six days after the shootings took place on January 7, 2015, the French Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle – France’s national intellectual property office – had received so many applications to register JE SUIS CHARLIE that it issued a formal statement indicating it would not register the phrase because the slogan’s wide usage stripped it of the distinctiveness required to function properly as a trademark. The French government was forced to issue a similar statement in the immediate wake of the November 13, 2015 terror attacks in Paris. In that instance, the French intellectual property office indicated that beginning the morning of November 14, 2015 – the day after the attacks – it had received so many applications to register PRAY FOR PARIS and JE SUIS PARIS that it was once again refusing to register the phrases at all. This time, however, the government noted that its decision not to register the phrase in either language stemmed from its conclusion that granting registration could be “contrary to public policy” in light of the phrases’ “use and their perception by the community” in light of the terror attacks.