The internet almost exploded Thursday over news that pop star (and freshly minted New Yorker) Taylor Swift has trademarked the phrases “This Sick Beat,” “Nice to Meet You. Where You Been?,” and “Party Like It’s 1989,” among others.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Contrary to many reports, Swift has not yet been granted any of these trademarks—she’s merely applied for them and is awaiting approval by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
But we still had a lot of questions, like “Can you really trademark a greeting?,” “Would Taylor actually sue me? We’re like besties…,” and “Can I trademark my own ridiculous catch phrases?”
For answers to these pressing issues, we called Christopher Sprigman, a professor at NYU Law School specializing in trademark law, and a man way too knowledgeable and respected to address this nonsense. But instead of hanging up the phone, the professor kindly took us on a magical tour through some of the basic rules of intellectual property.
Turns out, you can pretty much trademark anything you want as long as you follow a few guidelines. First, your trademark can’t be a “generic” term, i.e. the commonly used name of the product you’re trying to sell. An obvious example is that no one can get a trademark for the exclusive use of the word “salt” to sell salt shakers.
Next, your trademark can’t be something that’s entirely descriptive. So, to use Sprigman’s example, you can’t trademark “salty” to use on boxes of Saltine-style crackers. That wouldn’t be fair to someone else who wants to tell customers their snack is salty, too.
But if your trademark is “arbitrary” (meaning it has no connection with the good or service it’s being affixed to) or “fanciful” (meaning it has no inherent meaning at all, like Kodak) you’re generally in the clear.
That’s why, for example, Apple can trademark the word “Apple” to sell computers. (The company couldn’t, on the other hand, trademark Apple brand apples because that would probably be considered both generic and descriptive.)
Just as the word Apple is arbitrary when applied to a laptop, Taylor Swift’s lyrics are equally arbitrary when placed on a Christmas stocking or a “non-medicated preparation for the care of skin”—two of the products that T-Swift has applied for trademarks on.
“I don’t think ‘This Sick Beat’ is descriptive of Christmas stockings,'” Sprigman observes.
The professor also thinks Swift is ahead of the curve when it comes to trademarking random song lyrics. The rise of streaming makes it increasingly difficult for artists to monetize their music, leaving musicians to look for new ways to make money. “The music industry isn’t dying,” says Sprigman, “the music industry is changing. And different revenue sources are coming to the fore, and one of them is merchandise.”
That’s especially true for Taylor Swift, who recently removed her music from Spotify, the largest streaming music provider. “She’s no dummy,” Sprigman adds. “This strategy for her makes quite a bit of sense.”
So it looks like Swift is going to be fine here. But what about you and me? Can anyone just trademark random symbols and phrases?
The answer is probably yes, assuming you choose a phrase that’s distinctive enough. And as long as it’s not descriptive or generic and no one else has trademarked it or is already using it commercially, you probably will be in the clear. One Brooklyn artist even managed to trademark the pi symbol with a period after it.
Basically, all you need to do is pay an electronic filing fee ($225 to $325, plus maintenance fees), stay within the rules we’ve described, and you can be just like Taylor.
Except not famous or talented. But you both can at least sell Christmas stockings with a trademarked thing on them. And that’s something. Right?