Scott Sumner  

This Sick Capitalism ®

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I think we all agree that private property rights are an important feature of capitalism. But what is "property"? It increasingly seems like the answer is just about everything:

Taylor Swift Trademarks 'This Sick Beat' and Other Catchphrases

Thinking about selling T-shirts with "This Sick Beat" or "Party Like Its 1989" emblazoned on the front? Well, think again, because the only person who can legally do so now is Taylor Swift.

The pop superstar has trademarked the aforementioned phrases, as well as "Cause We Never Go Out of Style," "Could Show You Incredible Things" and "Nice to Meet You, Where You Been?" - which all pertain to her wildly successful album "1989." And the trademark isn't just restricted to T-shirts.

If you had the idea of printing any of these words on key chains, soaps, jewelry, guitar straps, namely, anything that can be embossed or engraved, get those dollar signs out of your eyes and shake it off, because T-Swizzle is reaping all of the benefits from now on.


The media tells us that the Obama administration is trying to get Asian countries to buy into a tighter set of intellectual property rights protections because . . . well I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps because President Obama does not believe that Taylor Swift is rich enough. If every Asian teenager gave just 10 cents to Taylor, it would add up to . . . quite a bit of money I'd imagine.

More seriously, the usual argument is that IP is a way of encouraging new inventions. Yes, Prince had already invented "Party Like its 1999." And the Smashing Pumpkins have "1979." But neither made the real conceptual breakthrough to: "Party Like Its 1989."

A few years ago someone told me I should trademark; "Never reason from a price change." I thought he was joking. Now I'm not so sure. I guess when I can no longer tell the difference between The Onion and the "real" news media, it's probably time for me to retire.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
mico writes:

A trademark is not meant to be a form of property, it's meant to be more like a signature. You shouldn't be able to market something under a name that a casual observer would reasonably infer meant that it had been made by someone other than you. It might not exist in a purified form of market liberalism, but ultimately it is just a common sense protection against fraud.

What I don't understand is who can think, "Nice to Meet You, Where You Been?" is uniquely and inseparably attached to Taylor Swift in the same way as "Coca-Cola" is to the Coca-Cola Company.

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

This has taken the (useful) trademark concept too far. Will I be liable if I write "I could show you incredible things" on a t-shirt as opposed to "I Could Show You Incredible Things" ?? Reading this I remember that Amazon tried to register a patent o the "1-click purchase" feature of its website a decade or so ago, I don't know how that turned out ...

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

"Property" is the conceptual relationship of humans to an element of physical utility.

That holds even where the utility is "emotional."

If we keep in mind that we are observing a relationship, and consider our evaluations of relationships in the discussions of "Property,"
perhaps those discussions will yield better understanding of viewpoints.

mobile writes:

When you can top the Canadian iTunes chart with 8 seconds of white noise, you should be able to trademark anything you want to.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mico, Good point.

vikingvista writes:

The growing state war on mimicry.

SeanV writes:

I guess when I go to East Asia say I would like to be able to buy a can of Coke for it's cool, refreshing taste, and to "know" that what I was buying was in fact Coke.
I'm no expert but the Taylor Swift scam seems more like a copyright thing.
Copyright law is bonkers - artists lifetime + 70 years!?!
Patents and copyright should last for 5-10 years, and then pass into govt ownership or be bid for at auction, or just lapse. Trademark law is a useful public good that provides consumer protection.
And a judge in a t-shirt lawsuit should insist that the logos carry a strapline "Brought to you by the Taylor Swift mega-corporation"

Scott Sumner writes:

Sean, I'm sure that you and I and the Chinese government all agree about Coke.

Bob Murphy writes:

I don't get it, Scott. You didn't post a picture of Stanley Fischer at the end of your last post, so why...?

Hazel Meade writes:

Well, it looks like the Marvin Gaye family pretty much has a copyright on a particular beats combined with party sounds and cowbell, so I guess all bets are off.

Nick writes:

Hazel,
I get what you're saying, but the remarkable thing is actually that the Gaye family won without being able to claim that the beats, cowbell, and shouting were theirs. The judge ruled that the case should be decided on sheet music (this is pretty widely agreed to be correct legally and sort of insane musically). It seems that percussion and vocal style, for some reason, are not granted the same protections as other elements of a song.
My point is they actually won that case having THROWN OUT all the elements of the song that are most similar. What remained was still ruled to be too derivative.

Scott Sumner writes:

Bob, I was told to post more pictures . . . so I do what I'm told. Seriously, I wanted to post the "Getty Images" picture that came with the story I linked to. The idea was to violate IP laws in a post complaining about IP laws. :)

The Original CC writes:

Scott- Funny about IP laws and the photo you chose.

Nick-

My point is they actually won that case having THROWN OUT all the elements of the song that are most similar. What remained was still ruled to be too derivative.

So can you explain to us what exactly was derivative about the song? I don't mean to get off on a tangent, but they sounded nothing alike to me at all, and I really do get concerned when IP gets strengthened by bad precedents like this.

Scott Sumner writes:

I should emphasize that whenever I include a smiley face that means I was joking. I hope it goes without saying I wasn't ordered to post more pictures.

Nick writes:

CC,
By the letter of the ruling, blurred lines is too similar in a couple of bass and guitar progressions. Some recordings were played at trial, so the jury and judge could have been influenced by the cowbells, but that cuts against the judges own directive.
A small snatch of copied guitar progression can be enough--that is well grounded precedent.
Personally, I do not hear it. But I haven't read the 'sheet music' (I don't even think sheet music was very important for the Gaye recording) ... The supposed basis for this ruling.
It's a case where previously established law is problematic to apply to new technology, I think. It's not so much an expansion of previous copyright strength as a failure to weaken or update it in the face of changing circumstances.

Jim V writes:

I kind of understand how an artist's staff would have a process where they would want to trademark virtually anything relating to the artist's work.

In a world where original works are readily copied and distributed without compensation, perhaps shirt sales are a noticeable part of the income stream and should be protected.

Seriously don't think I'd buy a shirt with a Taylor Swift phrase and image though.

Pagna writes:

More trademark, less trade.

Joey Donuts writes:

@ Pagna Be sure to trademark that.

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