Last week, I posted an article detailing Taylor Swift’s statement that she intends on trademarking phrases from her most recent album 1989 like “this sick beat” and “party like it’s 1989.” I found the statement equally outrageous and unsurprising, as Swift seems intent on continuing to provide headlines in the wake of Swiftgate.  My disdain for this sort of play by Swift is fairly apparent.
But let’s back up for a moment. My disdain is not brought on by some anti-business philosophy or pro-starving-artist sentiments. That would make it super convoluted and essentially amorphous in meaning. It’s actually a lot simpler than that: my disdain is driven by how Swift’s actions are affecting her fans, and the subsequent results that may (and most likely will) occur. While I applaud Swift, and artists like her, for taking their business futures by the horns and seeking to transform themselves from solely artists into artists/business people, I do not agree with the way in which Swift is going about it. And apparently, neither do some of her fans.
Today, Buzzfeed reported that Swift’s lawyers began threatening Etsy sellers with legal action (which we all know is code for “we’re going to sue you the minute the ink dries”) if they didn’t take down products they were selling which referenced either Swift’s lyrics or music. Normally this would be a completely reasonable thing to request (though in this case, the “request” is actually a demand), except for 3 things:
- The respective Etsy sellers were selling one-off items, or just cobbled-together fan paraphernalia; hardly enough to either cause Swift any sort of economic hardship or make her any real money anyway
- Swift doesn’t own the trademarks yet
- Swift is biting the hand that feeds her (her fans), and appears happy to keep doing it
So let’s take these one at a time. Regarding point number one, we’re talking about little pieces of jewelry or candles with bits of Swift’s lyrics referenced — hardly enough to be of any real threat (or benefit) to her “empire.”
Number two, as is clearly spelled out in this Time article, in 2014 Swift merely applied for the trademarks she’s already aggressively protecting. That means she actually has no right to be sending letters with threats of legal action right now; at least not until the USPTO awards her ownership over her prospective trademarks. So, from a strictly legal point of view, Swift is very clearly jumping the gun on threats of any sort of trademark infringement lawsuit.  That means that this great song by progressive-metal artist Peculate is not only awesome, but completely legal (at least for the time being):
Now the last point, and actually the most important of the three: Swift is actively alienating her fanbase and leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of (possibly former) fans. Swift is so focused on protecting her (as of yet un-granted) trademarks that she is biting the hands that feed her. Let’s see what some of the Etsy sellers/Swift fans have to say:
One Etsy owner/fan said:
When we got the email that the trademark infringement occurred [(which, by the way, it hasn’t yet)], we were shocked…We were scared. We didn’t even make enough money for a lawyer…That same day, we saw that Taylor was attempting to trademark a variety of phrases trying to get them blocked from being sold. After seeing that, we grew a little angry and felt targeted by her camp. It didn’t seem like much of a coincidence anymore.
Obviously an artist has a right to their art and people should respect that. But at the same time most people, like us, are trying to be respectful and contribute to the excitement that the artists brings into our lives. When that is taken away, it leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouths. It feels as though we don’t matter [to her.]
Swift’s actions will cost her very much in the long run, I believe. While it’s true that Swift is entitled to a share of any money made through sale of products that reference her material, I wonder if alienating her fans could possibly be worth the $1.60 she might receive in a one-time royalty. One commenter on the Buzzfeed article pointed out the reality that there is a ton of fan-made Harry Potter stuff floating around out there for sale, but J.K. Rowling doesn’t go around sending cease-and-desist letters to all those sellers.
Ironically, so many times in the music business, artists encourage fan art and expression; it helps them to build their brand and following. In fact, I see daily posts on my Twitter feed by the artists of fans’ work that they love. I’ve seen drawings of band members, bracelets and jewelry with the band name, and shirts with artists’ logos and lyrics all submitted by fans to the artists as away of showing their support. And so many times I find the artists so grateful for the allegiance and passion that they repost the pictures and encourage other fans to send in pictures. This is how you build a bridge to your fans.
In the music industry, it’s all about reputation: reputation amongst peers and reputation amongst fans. Few other things matter as much as those realities because those are the two realities that one can count on, particularly when things get tough. It can be a hard market, but if you’re an artist with a great reputation amongst peers, other artists will continue to want to play shows with you, vouch for you, encourage their fans to go see you. And your own fans will take up your flag. But if your reputation sucks, frankly, you’re lessening your chances of having any of those things.
Maybe Taylor Swift doesn’t care — I can’t and won’t presume to know. Here’s what I do know: her reputation is taking a beating in the music trenches, even if her wallet isn’t. 1989 sold a ton of copies and that’s great, but selling album copies doesn’t automatically rehabilitate one’s image amongst one’s contemporaries. Ironic though it may seem, the way things are going, Swift’s own fans are going to be a major headache for her camp in the future. Many of them feel betrayed, targeted, taken for granted. And that’s rule number one in this industry: never ever take your fanbase for granted.
Thanks to Mom for reading drafts of this.
 This means that the poem I wrote at the bottom of my post last week is completely legal. (Though one could also argue quite successfully that it would be anyway whether Swift has been granted the rights or not since it falls under a creative parody license).