Taylor Swift Using Dubious Trademark Registrations To Put An End To Sales Of Fan-Made Goods
In an effort to capture maximum Swift Dollars, the popular singer's legal team has been outdoing themselves by attempting to to copyright multiple key phrases from Taylor Swift's lyrics, and "swiftly" bringing down the hammer on any unlicensed fan made goods which feature them.
Guest post by Tim Cushing of Techdirt
Oh, to be a lawyer retained by Taylor Swift™ — free of concerns about your client's financial health or the nuances of intellectual property law. When not pursuing bogus defamation claims or targeting clear fair use cases, you can always bring the power of Swift® to bear on the unofficial adoration of the probably-not-a-white-supremacist singer's fanbase.
Legal threat after legal threat sent following trademark filing after trademark filing in hopes of capturing 100% of all available SwiftDollars™. Why only collect royalties when you can submit individual lyrics from songs to the US Patent and Trademark Office to lock everyone else out of the Swift Merch Machine®?
Ron Coleman — who knows a thing or two about viable trademark registrations – cuts to the heart of Swift's now-trademark trademark bullying. Quoting a more respectful article by Billboard, Coleman sets the stage:
Earlier this month, Swift moved to trademark key phrases from her music: the title of her upcoming album Reputation, her latest single “Look What You Made Me Do” and one of the lines from said single, “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.” Swift plans to use the phrases on a variety of licensed merchandise, from t-shirts to notebooks and guitar picks. “Look What You Made Me Do” is already emblazoned across t-shirts on Swift’s online merch store, which has likely generated significant sales in conjunction with the singer's controversial Ticketmaster Verified Fan campaign that rewards merch and music buyers with a better shot at good tickets.
Etsy shop owners who pedal [sic] unofficial, Swift-inspired goods have been seeing a spike in cease and desist letters, according to BuzzFeed.
The latest trademark filings follow registrations for such lyrical inanities as "party like it's 1989" and "this sick beat" — the latter of which could have been "coined" by anyone countless times before Swift™ decided she should be the sole proprietor.
Ultimately… it's trademark bullying — the continuation of IP law by other means — from which the recipients of these baseless legal threats have no realistic recourse.
Is it utterly insane to suggest that if a celebrity (whether an athlete, “artist” or whatever they’re famous for these days) coins or brings fame to a phrase, other people should not be able to profit from it without the celebrity getting some of the vigorish?
Yes, it’s utterly insane. I won’t give Congress credit for thinking this through, but the way it turns out neither the trademark regime nor the copyright regime protect clever wordplay, and they’re not meant to. Why? Because not everything should be monetized.
Especially when it already is. Every time one of these fans sells something with a Taylor Swift “lyric” (and, really — puh-lease) on it, each use of that something is an advertisement for Taylor Swift.
There’s your monetization, Taylor. Hope that helps you make the rent this month.
As Coleman points out, attempting to trademark lyrical phrases isn't unheard of, but it's also rarely guaranteed to result in a legitimate trademark. Swift maybe doesn't know this, but her lawyers do… or at least should. What her lawyers do know is someone side-gigging on Etsy isn't going to push back much when a threat letter claiming nothing more than a pending trademark registration shows up in their mailbox signed by a lawyer with a string of Roman numerals after his name on the letterhead of a high-powered law firm.
So, the abuse will continue and Swift™ will continue to lock fans out of being fans on their own terms. They're always welcome to add themselves to the Taylor Swift Official Revenue Stream®, which will allow Swift, Inc. to dictate the terms of the relationship as well as the markup on goods and services.
And so homage is forbidden; unofficial inspiration is punished; the brand is “managed”; the fan base is still, in the main, slavishly dedicated to buying Officially Licensed Garbage; the legal fees are earned; the world spins on with a bunch fewer Etsy shmattes devoted to the star’s fabulous self; and all is well with the world.
That's not to say Swift has cornered the market on ridiculous IP litigation. Swift is also being sued for infringement for allegedly jacking one of the most unimaginative lyrical lines ever written.
The songwriters behind 3LW's "Playas Gon' Play" say Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" infringes on their lyrics. The aughts girl group sang "Playas, they gonna play / And haters, they gonna hate” more than a decade before Swift declared "[T]he players gonna play, play, play, play, play and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
Sean Hall and Nathan Butler co-authored the 2001 song and claim they popularized the now ubiquitous phrase.
Considering the tautological nature of the disputed phrase, it's unlikely Hall/Butler were the first to use this phrase, much less the only ones to ever think of describing the actions of players/haters as being, respectively, playing/hating. But lawyers gonna law, as they say [trademark registration pending]. And here we are, watching two artists dispute the origin of two banal takes on players/haters. Given the stupidity on display, we should be more than willing to hate both the players and the game.