Taylor Swift performs during her '1989' World Tour at AAMI Park on December 10, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.
Photography by Graham Denholm—Getty Images
By Jeff John Roberts
December 14, 2015

Taylor Swift owns a Beverly Hills mansion, a custom kitty, and soon a portion of the English language, too. This month, the music queen filed 20 trademark applications for common words and phrases like “Blank Space” and “1989.” The applications also covered a more Taylor-specific term, “Swiftmas.”

The news of the filings soon brought a flurry of headlines, including inaccurate ones claiming Swift sought a copyright on her birth year.

Such mistakes, which reflect the media’s mixing up of various types of intellectual property, led to mockery on Twitter:

As the tweet suggests, the mistake is a common one and pops up almost every time news outlets report on a celebrity owning such and such a word or phrase (the Queen Anne in the tweet, by the way, refers to the British monarch who presided over the UK’s first copyright law).

So what exactly does Swift get to own if the trademark office grants her applications? The answer is that she would be able to prevent others from using those phrases—which also include “a girl named girl” and “And I’ll write your name”—to pass off types of merchandise or services that could be confused with the singer. (Swift earlier this year applied to own other terms like “this sick beat”).

Also, as the Tantalizing Trademark blog notes, the reason Swift’s lawyers filed for so many applications (20 filings for five phrases) is that trademarks only protect specific categories of goods and services. A trademark for a category covering handbags won’t apply to cars, for instance. And in some cases, including Taylor’s “1989,” the application isn’t for the word in general, but for a stylized writing of it.

Finally, if the word or phrase is not a distinct one (like “Swiftmas”), the would-be owner must be able to show the phrase has taken on a secondary meaning related to the brand. That’s why trademark owners can’t run around claiming to own basic blocks of the English language.

So next time you hear of a celebrity owning a phrase, just remember it usually doesn’t mean very much.

Next, read: Taylor Swift contract? Unfair, some photographers say

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