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NPR Arts & Life

Taylor Swift, Savvy Trademark Titan


OK, we're going to play song now - one of the biggest songs of the last year.


TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Shake it off. Shake it off. Shake it off. Shake it off. I, I, I shake it off.

MARTIN: That is Taylor Swift's hugely popular single "Shake It Off." Pay close attention to the lyrics. The 25-year-old Grammy winner is trying to trademark the following phrase. This is it.


SWIFT: (Singing) This sick beat.

MARTIN: Yep. Taylor Swift wants to make sure you can't just willy-nilly go around using that particular lyric. We're not talking about stopping other singers from stealing it. The trademark is so that the phrase "This sick beat" can't be used on products; everything from T-shirts to disposable dinnerware. It's just one of the trademark applications that Taylor Swift has submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Other phrases the singer is trying to trademark include "'Cause we never go out of style," "Nice to meet you. Where you been?" and "Party like it's 1989." We could go on.

To talk us through the issue of trademarking phrases, we are joined by Mark Lemley. He teaches intellectual property at Stanford University. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARK LEMLEY: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So first off, can you explain how hard it is to get a word or a phrase trademarked?

LEMLEY: Well, the trademark office is designed to protect things that have been used as brand names. So you can protect a word you've made up - Coke for a soda for instance - or even a word that you haven't made up that you've adopted for something arbitrary like Apple for computers. But you do so only if you can show that nobody is going to associate the word with anything related to what you sell until you start selling a product that uses that word.

MARTIN: So, you know, Taylor Swift is doing this with all kinds of lyrics from her songs. Is that unusual for an entertainer to do?

LEMLEY: It is unusual, and I think it's rather different than what trademark law is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be about enabling customers to find products that are manufactured and branded using that phrase.

MARTIN: I mean, we should point out she hasn't been granted all of the trademarks she's applied for. She kind of abandoned an effort for the phrase "love, love, love." So you can imagine why 'cause it's a very general word that's used all the time. But she was granted a trademark for the phrase "speak now." So you cannot put that phrase, "speak now," on bed linens, bed blankets, clothing, souvenir programs. So I cannot, like, you know, start a business selling pillow shams with the words "speak now" I suppose is what that means.

LEMLEY: So the trademark office is supposed to reject applications if you can't show that you're actually using the mark to brand goods in that particular class. And the worry is if we give Taylor Swift a kind of broad right to use the words "speak now," the rest of us have to forever after hold our peace.

MARTIN: I mean, is this just Taylor Swift being a really savvy business person? I mean, do we think of these big superstars now as having, you know, a cadre of lawyers and managers who are thinking about how to manage her brand and to make money off it?

LEMLEY: Well, I do think Taylor Swift has been quite sophisticated in managing her image and her brand. And I think this is part of it. But it is part of a larger trend. And one of the other examples we've seen involves Katy Perry, whose Super Bowl show featured dancing sharks. And the left shark, in particular, was dancing out of beat and became rather famous. She turned around and headed to the trademark office to try to trademark the term "left shark" and the image of the shark.


LEMLEY: And I think had to back down after it turned out that the image is not actually one that she originated but that came from somebody else.

MARTIN: Mark Lemley is an intellectual property lawyer at Stanford Law School. Thanks so much for talking with us.

LEMLEY: Thank you.


SWIFT: (Singing) I, I, I, I shake it off. I shake it off. I shake it off. Shake it off. Shake it off. I, I, I, I shake it off. I shake it off. You got to shake it off. Shake it off. I, I, I, I shake it off. I shake it off. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.