This piece was originally published at studentsforliberty.org.
Taylor Swift is already making headlines in 2015, and not in a good way. The artist has always been a strong defender of her intellectual property, from keeping her music off of Spotify to bringing down the iron hammer on YouTube lyric videos and mashups. At the end of January, Swift trademarked five phrases from her album 1989 with the U.S. Government: “Party Like It’s 1989,” “This Sick Beat,” “Cause We Never Go Out of Style,” “Could Show You Incredible Things,” and “Nice To Meet You, Where You Been?” These trademarks do not mean we can’t walk around and say “nice to meet you” anymore, but it prevents their commercial use without Taylor Swift’s permission. Taylor’s over-zealous defense of her brand goes too far, and tramples over freedom of speech.
“Party Like It’s 1989” is remarkably similar to Prince’s plea to us to “party like it’s 1999.” Should he also receive royalties from Swift’s adaptation of a phrase he coined? Where would Swift be in the first place if previous artists trademarked popular phrases they used and left Swift and her generation with artificial restrictions on lyrics?
According to the U.S. Patent Office, “a trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.” Trademarks are the reason that white cursive letters on a red background make you think of Coca-Cola, or that the Nike swoosh is instantly recognizable. Taylor Swift is far from the first person to trademark a phrase. Michael Buffer trademarked the phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble,” the NFL owns a trademark on “Super Bowl,” and Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte has a trademark on the made-up word “Jeah.” As easy as it is to blame Swift for her seemingly absurd use of U.S. intellectual property laws, she is simply following common protocol.
Property rights are central to libertarian philosophy. Libertarians believe in self-ownership and the right to the product of one’s labor. Perhaps the most important source of property rights is the concept of scarcity. Land, for example, is scarce. Because two people cannot lay claim to the same property without taking it from the other (unless the two work out some way to share), the enforcement of property rights is fundamental to a libertarian society. The application of property rights to tangible goods is important because tangible goods can be taken away. On the other hand, when dealing with intangible goods, the problem of scarcity is irrelevant. Words and ideas are not scarce; we will never run out of them and they cannot be earned or taken away. Ultimately, Taylor Swift and I can both get down to “this sick beat” and neither of us suffers a loss.
Intellectual property is an issue that divides libertarians. For example, Ayn Rand and her followers today are staunch supporters of patents. On the other hand, most anarchist-leaning libertarians are against intellectual property all together. We need to recognize the distinction between tangible objects, and intangible and infinitely reproducible products of the mind like ideas, language, images, etc. Restrictions on what the mind can create are nothing more than attempts to control thought. The way Taylor Swift is using state power to control thought is nothing short of an Orwellian nightmare.
Language is a product of the human mind and flourishes through spontaneous order. Language cannot be centrally planned. It is not created by one mind independently, but by all human minds together. It is intangible, abundant, and essential to the free flow and communication of ideas. Trademarking attempts to arrange and manipulate the use of words and the spread of ideas is essentially controlling the human mind and directing human interaction. Although Taylor Swift herself did not create any of the words used in her songs, because she uses them in a specific order, she can prevent others from using them in a similar fashion.
At its core, intellectual property is government-granted privilege. IP restricts competition by artificially boosting prices and creating high barriers to entry. Trademarking requires preexisting capital and costs money to register, maintain, and enforce. Corporate branding is so heavily protected by government bureaucracy that it is impossible for smaller competitors to gain consumer recognition. Additionally, intellectual property restricts invention by legally preventing the development of pre-existing products. Intellectual property is the reason my prescription costs $500 per month to refill (without insurance). Intellectual property artificially restricts supply, ultimately hurting the consumer in an unfree marketplace.
Taylor Swift’s trademarks are emblematic of an unfree society. Speech restrictions and attempts to make abundant goods scarce masquerade as defense of private property. To have a truly free society, we must fight for free expression and the elimination of all restrictions on speech. I can use any of Taylor Swift’s trademarked phrases without taking away her ability to use them. Our words function in no way similarly to real, tangible property. Libertarians should fight for the distinction between intellectual property and real property, because our freedom depends on it.