You’ll need a license from Taylor Swift if you want to market goods using a variety of phrases found in her 2014 album “1989” – phrases such as “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?”
And if you use them commercially without her permission, she will have the right to sue you for an injunction or for damages. Why? Because Swift applied for and received federal trademark protection for those phrases.
A trademark is a word, symbol or phrase used to identify a particular manufacturer or seller’s products and distinguish them from the products of another. For example, the trademark “Coca-Cola” is used to distinguish the Coca-Cola Company’s soda from that of other cola-flavored soft drinks. Similarly, the word “Nike” with an accompanying “swoosh,” is a trademark for Nike brand athletic shoes. Trademarks make it easier for consumers to quickly identify the source of a given product, creating an incentive for manufacturers to invest in the quality of their product.
An individual can obtain federal trademark protection by registering a particular phrase used in connection with his or her merchandise with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but only if the phrase meets certain legal standards:
A term can be trademarked if it is “arbitrary” or “fanciful” because it bears no logical relationship to the underlying product – for example, “Exxon,” or “Kodak,” and Apple (used in connection with the computer or smartphone, not the fruit).
Also, a term can be trademarked if it is “suggestive” in that it evokes a characteristic of the product, without specifically describing the product – such as “Coppertone” used to identify a particular sun tanning lotion.
Merely “descriptive” terms (such as “hot,” “cold,” or “green”) cannot be trademarked, unless it is shown that over time, the public has come to associate them with a particular producer or service provider – such as “Holiday Inn” that has become identified with a certain hotel chain, rather than with hotel services in general.
Finally, generic terms that cover a category of competing products, such as “computer,” cannot be trademarked, so as to avoid confusion.
In granting Swift trademarks to these phrases, it is likely that the Patent and Trademark Office determined that they are “suggestive” because people associate them with the “1989” album, or that they are “arbitrary” because they bear no logical relationship to particular merchandise Swift peddles (guitar straps, for example). Strange though it may seem, such decisions by the Office are not unreasonable and probably would be upheld in litigation.
So how does this affect you? If you want to stencil “Nice to Meet You, Where You Been” or “Party Like It’s 1989” on your personal not-for-sale t-Shirt, or use those phrases in a parody or article about Taylor Swift, that should not be a problem. But watch out – if you are running a t-shirt sales business, think of using “Partying Like It’s 2015,” instead of “Partying Like It’s 1989.”