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IPFS News Link • Free Speech

Taylor Swift Shows Us Why We Need to Shake Off Intellectual Property

•, Benjamin Seevers

Taking on Taylor Swift, a recent documentary on CNN, tells the story of Sean Hall and Nathan Butler, a pair of songwriters for the early 2000s hip-hop group 3LW. Hall and Butler sued Taylor Swift in 2021 over Swift's hit song "Shake It Off" for allegedly violating their copyright for the 3LW song "Playas Gon' Play." Hall and Butler allege that the phrases "haters gonna hate" and "playas gonna play" in Swift's song are ripped straight from the 3LW song.

This accusation is simply dishonest. The phrase "haters gonna hate" predates both of the songs and appears to have arisen spontaneously rather than having been coined by any particular person or group. The same could be said for "players gonna play." Assuming that a copyright, a form of intellectual property (IP), is a legitimate form of property, Swift clearly did not "steal" these phrases because they were already common phrases at the time of the composition of both songs.

However, assuming the (correct) position that IP is not a legitimate form of property, Hall and Butler clearly have no legitimate grounds to sue Swift. These phrases, whether Swift "stole" them or not, are fair game. Anyone can make use of them in any manner that they desire. These phrases can be used in a song or any other form of media. Hall and Butler do not have a monopoly on these phrases.

Intellectual property is not legitimate property because general ideas cannot be claimed. One person's use of a certain idea (or in this case a phrase) does not legitimately impose restrictions on another person's use of the idea. Whether Hall and Butler coined these phrases or not, they certainly have the right to say them to their hearts' content. But that does not give them the right to prevent others from doing so. These phrases are produced by rearranging the physical world to produce sound or written lyrics. If someone owns the requisite physical resources, they should be free to reproduce these lyrics in either verbal or written form and profit from them as much as they want. The copiers are not necessarily using anything that was previously owned.

This makes the documentary's use of the term "cultural appropriation" even more ridiculous. We now know that phrases cannot be appropriated, but to say that a specific culture has an exclusive right to phrases is absurd. Assuming that property in phrases is legitimate, the right must be traceable to a definite person who spoke or wrote the phrases in the first place. This right cannot be homesteaded by a class of individuals: a culture. An individual must first compose the phrase, and that individual would presumably have a right to allow others to use the phrase.