Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Marshawn Lynch recently made headlines, including some negative ones, about their attempts to protect their intellectual property. But do celebrities actually have the right to stop others from using ordinary words, phrases and cute depictions of undersea bloodthirsty creatures?
Let’s start with a basic premise. A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods or services of one party from those of others. It has no significance, and no rights exist, outside of this definition. A catch phrase in and of itself does not function as a trademark, but if it is affixed to particular goods, it serves as a source identifier and thus a trademark for those particular goods. So what have these famous people done about this? In part 1 of this 3-part series, we look at the Swift actions Taylor has taken.
Of these three, Taylor Swift was the first – she filed applications with the US Patent and Trademark Office to register various phrases from songs she has written, including THIS SICK BEAT and CAUSE WE NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE, for use in connection with a laundry list of goods, including stationery, aprons and wind chimes. This caused public outcry about attempts to monopolize ordinary phrases—for example, Acclaim Magazine offered up an opinion piece that said Swift has “officially gone full sociopath” by filing these trademark applications.
That’s pretty harsh. Who says that a phrase can’t be a trademark? There are thousands of examples – THINK DIFFERENT, JUST DO IT, WHEN YOU CARE ENOUGH TO SEND THE VERY BEST, GOOD TO THE LAST DROP… I’m sure that you could think of several in the next few minutes if you try.
The phrases for which Taylor Swift is seeking trademark registration came out of her own brain, not that this is even a requirement for trademark rights. So if indeed she decides to sell bean bags and shoe laces branded with THIS SICK BEAT, and stop others from doing the same, this is her right and is not any different from “We Bring Good Things to Life” or “Eat Fresh”.
Okay, so maybe it is a little over the top for Taylor to have filed trademark applications covering goods that it’s hard to picture her actually selling. Is she really going to put THIS SICK BEAT on napkin rings? Maybe not, but here’s what will happen – eventually, her trademarks will register only for the goods she is actually selling. Moreover, her trademark applications, and any eventual registrations, do not actually remove this phrase from the lexicon. They only give her the exclusive right to use the trademarks on goods she is actually selling, and to stop other people from selling the same or related goods. And that is the right of any trademark owner. So Taylor, haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate hate – so glad that you can shake it off!