I wasn’t aware of this, but human-Knicks-mascot Spike Lee is reportedly making a film about violence in Chicago. This is annoying for a whole host of reasons, including how insanely relatively low the city’s murder count is compared to historical averages. That said, it’s not like there isn’t a severe violence problem in tiny, tiny pockets of areas here in my home city, so if he wants to make a film about it, fine, go ahead, for all the good it will do. But the film is also reportedly going to feature the term “Chiraq”, a silly comparison between the homicide counts in Chicago versus the death toll in Iraq, because that’s apparently a valid comparison. Annoying as the term is, however, it’s more annoying to see some money-grubbing preacher from Chicago try to force Spike to alter the title, claiming ownership of the word and spouting off all kinds of easily refutable nonsense about its origins.
Emmett Benjamin, who filed trademarks for “Chiraq” in Illinois within the last two months, said that when he heard about the film a few months ago, he thought it could threaten the work he has been doing as part of his temple in Oak Park, the House of Christ Temple Divine.
“We had been working on this for almost an entire year … and realizing (the term) Chi-raqi will be put in danger,” Benjamin said. “We put over $100 into marketing last year to try to spread awareness, and I hate to say it, but Spike Lee’s project would seem to be a result of our hard work in marketing.”
Emmett is burying the lede here, because if he and his church are able to turn $100 worth of marketing into terminology adoption by one of the most famous movie directors of our time, well, Emmett should get out of the god business and start himself a marketing firm. Now, I’ll emphasize from that quote that Benjamin has “filed” for trademarks, not successfully registered any regarding “Chiraq.” That said, his church does indeed produce films to raise awareness of what he calls “Chiraqi – a nation of persecuted black people.” So, does he have a common law claim to the word?
One legal expert doubted Benjamin’s chances for securing rights to Chiraq. Jonathan Masur, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said that Benjamin could receive a legitimate trademark only if he were the first person to use the world commercially.
“The word comes from rap and hip-hop, people who have been using the words,” Masur said. “I am dubious that this person is the first person to use the word.”
Almost certainly not. As best as I can find, the term “Chiraq” has been used since at least 2012 and almost certainly earlier. 2012 was when someone posted a definition in Urban Dictionary. The term has been quite prominent in music, media, and film circles ever since. And Benjamin doesn’t even pretend to have coined the phrase himself.
Benjamin, who uses the terms Chiraq and Chiraqi interchangeably, also wants to make sure that the low-income “people of color” in Chicago, who coined the term, receive proceeds from the film.
“The term was originally coined by young men and women in the streets of Chicago living in the battle zone with the police and sometimes other gangs and other people,” Benjamin said. “The name belongs to the people of Chicago. We are merely protecting it and holding it for them.”
Yeah, that isn’t actually how trademark works, my friend. Like, at all. Collective city ownership of a term, such that a preacher purporting to represent them might extract money from a filmmaker and control the title of his films, is a concept not found in the law, or really anywhere outside of said preacher’s head. On top of that, he’d likely have to convince a court that his films would be confused with Spike Lee’s, a claim he hasn’t made because it would take a level of hubris I believe is attainable only by FIFA executives. And even if he wanted to make that case, Spike Lee is using the term in a film to comment on violence in Chicago, meaning he could likely simply shout “First Amendment!” and dance out of the courtroom to go continue making his film.
Sorry, sir, but “Chiraq: This Time It’s Personal, A Spike Lee Joint” will be made, and there’s nothing you and I can do about it.