PARIS (AFP) - They were three little words that circled the globe, and now Joachim Roncin, the graphic designer who coined the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie), is seeking to legally protect the phrase from commercialisation.
The slogan that has come to symbolise the fight for freedom of expression has become a money-spinner for opportunists, with the logo – the words in white and grey on a black background – plastered on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts.
The French patent office told AFP that of the 120 applications it has already refused, two sought to use the slogan to help sell weapons.
Mr Roncin, the 39-year-old graphic designer at Stylist magazine who came up with the phrase after Islamist gunmen stormed the offices of the Charlie Hebdo weekly killing 12 people, is horrified at the commercial turn the slogan has taken.
“Frankly, I’m really hurt by everything that has happened with people wanting to make money out of it. Especially because it profoundly devalues the meaning of the slogan,” he told AFP in an interview.
“At the moment I’m working with lawyers to fight this as much as possible, to ensure that objects derived from this slogan only serve the purpose of furthering freedom of expression.”
His lawyer Myriam Sebban, explained that Mr Roncin “will rely on his copyright to try and control the use of the slogan and keep the initial message intact” – in cooperation with Charlie Hebdo.
Mr Roncin is not seeking any profit from use of the phrase, she said.
Copies of the magazine’s first edition after the attack have also appeared on eBay for thousands of euros (dollars), prompting the site to announce it would hand over any profits to Charlie Hebdo.
‘IT ALL HAPPENED VERY FAST’
Just a normal guy with 400 Twitter followers at the time, Mr Roncin unwittingly spawned one of the most popular hashtags ever in the wake of France’s bloodiest attacks in decades.
The hashtag since has taken on a life of its own.
Like the staff of the satirical weekly, Mr Roncin and his colleagues at the fashion magazine Stylist were seated at an editorial meeting when two gunmen burst into the Charlie Hebdo office shouting “Allahu Akbar” and opened fire.
A colleague of Mr Roncin’s saw the news on Twitter, and while it was too soon to know how many victims there were, he was inspired to draw up the logo.
“I didn’t for a second think that what I’d say would have any impact, and it was with absolute humility that I made this image to express my pain and that I was shocked by an attack on journalists.”
The rest, as they say, is history as the slogan shot around the Internet, and snowballed into a movement.
“It all happened very fast. It is all very confused, it was a chain of events, it was worldwide,” said Mr Roncin.
So what made him put down those three specific words?
Mr Roncin puts it down to a jumbled mix of history and pop culture.
From “Ich bin ein Berliner", the phrase uttered by John F. Kennedy in West Berlin in 1963, to “We are all Americans” after the Sept 11 attacks in New York, he drew inspiration from the solidarity expressed when there are no other words.
The phrase for instance also took root in Ferguson, Missouri, in the form “I am Michael Brown", the unarmed black teen shot and killed by police.
While touched by the fact that people have “recognised themselves” in the slogan, he said he is troubled by some media trying to turn him into “a leader or a hero”.
“I just made an image, a slogan. It’s the social networks who turned this movement into something that took insane proportions.”
That includes offshoots such as #JeSuisNico, mocking former president Nicolas Sarkozy for landing in the front row of a march by global leaders during a mass rally in Paris against terrorism.
Or someone photoshopping French actor Gerard Depardieu holding a Je Suis Charlie sign into Je Suis Chablis, a nod to his notoriously heavy drinking habits.
Mr Roncin, who was born to a Ukrainian mother and French father and lives in Paris with his wife and son, said he finds these hilarious.
“Whether we like it or not #JeSuisCharlie has gone down in history, and also in pop culture. This kind of thing helps the message last.”
But to those who tweeted #JeSuisKouachi in support of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen Said and Cherif Kouachi, or #JeSuisPasCharlie (I am not Charlie), he says they have missed the point.
“I think those people don’t understand the original message. A secular message of hope and voila, a message of peace.”
Mr Roncin admits he experienced a “wow” moment at the slogan’s omnipresence at the mammoth march of some 1.5 million in Paris on Sunday.
“It wasn’t necessarily pride, but this gap between sitting behind a computer and creating an image, and suddenly it’s on George Clooney’s chest at the Golden Globes, at the end of The Simpsons.
“I don’t think any human being can mentally absorb that. It isn’t possible, it is outrageous, it is too much.”