Steph Innes: Shaking off intellectual property infringers – Taylor Swift’s brand strategy

Steph Innes: Shaking off intellectual property infringers – Taylor Swift's brand strategy

Steph Innes

As Taylor Swift prepares to enchant the Murrayfield crowd with her talents this weekend, it is not just her reputation as a music superstar that draws attention, writes Steph Innes.

Taylor Swift is a mastermind in safeguarding her empire, through a robust and well-defended intellectual property (IP) portfolio. But Swift has become more than a superstar – she is also a megabrand well aware of the threats posed by potential infringers eager to cash in on her success.

Swift’s portfolio

With more than 100 live US federal trade mark registrations and applications, Swift’s brand is a fortress against those who wish to exploit it. She first filed a federal trade mark application for her name “Taylor Swift” in 2007 and, since then, her IP rights company has continued to guard her brand, owning numerous trade marks in the US, UK, China, India and beyond.

Swift has utilised the power of trade marks across a range of areas. Whilst copyright law helps to protect her songs, it is less likely to extend to individual words or phrases. She has secured rights for lyrics from hits like Blank Space and Style, and even phrases like “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now”. This strategy has allowed Swift to gain proprietary interest in using these words or phrases across a wide range of goods and services, from guitar straps to Christmas stockings, and even unexpected items such as napkin holders and bean bags. From her name to those of her cats, Swift might be said to have left no “blank space” for authorised use.

Bad blood

As well as proactive IP applications, Swift’s team is active in IP monitoring and enforcement. The continuing rise in IP infringement, with artists’ works and images misappropriated in counterfeit goods, has necessitated such vigilance. The boom in AI-generated content has also exacerbated the issue, making it easier for infringers to profit unfairly from artists’ creations. Swift took a stance against unauthorised sellers in 2015 and, more recently, we have seen Harry Styles in the US courts aiming to curb the sale of counterfeit merchandise on e-commerce platforms.

Brand strategy

A robust brand strategy is not exclusive to global superstars – it is critical for any business aiming to safeguard its reputation, enhance brand recognition and optimise revenue streams. Key aspects of brand strategy include:

  • Start early: Consider what is important/valuable and build a trade mark portfolio around it. Some desired marks will fall foul of the rules on registration – this can change the brand, which is better done before material investment is made. Similarly, consider clearance searches to help avoid overlapping with existing rights of third parties. Where international protection is needed, take advantage of grace periods to delay some filings – this can stagger costs and give time to develop commercial strategy.
  • Take care with classes: Whilst it can be tempting to seek protection in a broad range of classes, doing so too widely can result in marks that are vulnerable to cancellation for non-use. Classes should align with current and short/mid-term intended uses of the trade mark.
  • Maintenance is key: Sizeable portfolios bring significant cost. Some marks might be abandoned where no longer relevant and new filings may well be needed as an organisation’s brand/product mix evolves. Watching services are helpful in order to spot potential infringers across different classes and territories.
  • Document the strategy: Consider the approach to brand development and protection. Governance is key, as is clarity on internal processes. Do not forget other types of IP – domain names are also key to brands. Effective IP strategies commonly look at IP from all angles, covering a collection of relevant rights, assets and revenue streams.
    Whilst these points are certainly not as catchy as the songs Taylor Swift will perform at Murrayfield this weekend, proactive investment in IP strategy is undoubtedly valuable for a wide range of businesses beyond the global superstar.

Steph Innes is a partner at Dentons

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