Protecting The Brand: Taylor Swift Seizes Control of Her Brand, Probably Won’t Suffer For It

Taylor Swift is in the process right now of consolidating power over her brand. This means she’s going to break some heads legally speaking, including, in some cases, those of her fans. And I’m okay with that.

The past few months have seen a lot of really intriguing legal activity from Swift’s people. First she took her music down from Spotify (by far the most popular streaming music service), meaning the only way to get her new album 1989 is to pay for it directly. A few weeks ago she filed for trademark protection of the phrase “this sick beat” because apparently she thinks there’s a lot of money to be made from it. And just last month she started issuing takedown notices to fans who were selling knock-off Swift merch on Etsy.

Most of the people likely to suffer from this activity are Swift fans, which raises the question: how far is too far? How much abuse will fans take before they turn on you? Swift is a pretty polarizing figure these days, and isn’t nearly as beloved as Beyonce (who herself threatened legal action against fans on Etsy, but has essentially remained untouchable). But despite her detractors, Swift also has a legendarily good relationship with her fans, who may ultimately forgive her. [In fact, I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, but held off on publishing it to see exactly what would happen. Exactly as I surmised... nothing. Swift, at least with her fans, remains unmarred. UPDATE: Apparently there's some trubs in Swift-world. Evidently some her fans are mad at her for defending a fan named Johnnie who has been accused of bullying other Swift fans. Swift herself has hinted she might leave Tumblr over the flap. It's too early to tell if this will harm her reputation, but I'm inclined to think this is one of those little blips most stars have and will fade away into nothingness. My analysis remains.]

I’m not much of a Swift fan (though I adore Shake It Off and play it often), but I have no issues with her going after anyone who steps on her brand, even if its a couple of unwitting, overzealous fans. There’s a fine line between protecting your assets and being a bully and there’s no indication that Swift has crossed it. Furthermore, why shouldn’t she protect whatever assets she has? Why not make as much money as she can while she can? While Taylor Swift may be one of the biggest stars on the planet today, that’s by no means guaranteed to be the case indefinitely. The entertainment business is a fickle one, and its sordid history is littered with the burnt-out husks of once shining stars. Even stars who’ve been able to maintain career longevity in the face of overwhelming odds don’t always march along with their reputations intact. Just Google “Madonna” and “Rebel Heart” to see how easy it is to misread the zeitgeist and get pummeled for it.

At the same time, I have to say that the level of control she wants over her brand is impossible, so I don’t think endless lawsuits are wise as a logistical exercise. Remember two years ago when Beyonce tried to scrub the internet of all those Superbowl Halftime pics that made her look like SheHulk? That didn’t go as well as she wanted because the truth of the internet is that it is infinite and inexhaustible. Once something’s out there, it will stay out there forever. You’re better off spending your time building up goodwill in the public eye so that the people who try to take advantage of you can profit as little possible. For every piece of fan-made merch that Swift takes down, seven more will rise up in its place like a hydra. 

Luckily for Swift, her relationship with the fans remains in good stead. As long as she keeps her eye on the ball, that’ll give her the leeway to go after anyone she wants while still keeping the brand intact. 

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA