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

There’s nothing wrong with using a phrase someone else came up with. But there is a lot wrong with coercively preventing such use.

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.

May the composer allow an entire class of people, such as members of a culture, to use the phrase? If IP is to be consistent, then yes, but the key part of this is that it must be demonstrated that the person who first used that phrase gave that class of people the right to use the phrase. If that cannot be demonstrated, one cannot simply scream “cultural appropriation” whenever they hear or see something they do not like.

All Swift did was use a common phrase that she had the complete right to use. In fact, she used it in a more effective manner than others before her. As of right now, Swift’s 2014 song “Shake It Off” has almost 1.3 billion total listens on Spotify plus an additional 66 million listens from the song’s re-release, while the song Hall and Butler wrote, “Playas Gon’ Play,” currently has 12 million total listens on the same platform despite being 14 years older. Of course, there are other methods of listening to songs, but these statistics affirm the fact that Swift has an immense impact on current music listeners.

This brings us to the economic function of a songwriter and singer. They are tasked with rearranging words into phrases that are catchy and audibly pleasing, perhaps with lyrics that make people think. There are many reasons an artist may become successful, but at the root of their success is that they please enough consumers to make a profit. While 3LW’s song was successful with their audience, Swift’s song blows 3LW’s out of the water. Swift clearly knows how to produce a product that satisfies consumers, and nobody has a right to infringe on her ability to do so unless she violates another’s rights. And as far as this controversy goes, Swift did absolutely nothing wrong.

Another lesson that can be extracted out of this controversy is how people use the government to leech off of successful people. While Hall and Butler were unsuccessful in plundering Swift, other innovators are not so lucky. In the world of patents, there are so-called “patent trolls” who hold patents for vague products without having actually invented anything. Why? They sit on these patents for years so that they can sue innovators for inevitably inventing something similar. Of course, these trolls get compensated and innovation is stifled.

Ideas, including phrases, must be free to use. If there are restrictions in the form of IP laws, then bad actors are empowered to extract payment from the actual innovators. As a result, consumers are deprived of new technology, pharmaceuticals, and, as this controversy demonstrates, good music.