You can't. I mean really, you might as well try to draw a box around the section of the atmosphere that you and only you are breathing. Good luck with that. As much as our egos hate to admit it, we are all interconnected.
But our society functions on money, and if you can monetize something by slapping a trademark on it, then of course someone is going to do it. Last week I received an email from Etsy's legal team telling me that one of my listings had been deactivated because someone was claiming to hold the copyright for that item.
What the fuck?
It was immediately clear that I had not infringed on the trademark in question. My bracelet was, well, fucking different. I took a look at the website of the person claiming the infringement. (Etsy's email basically said: we know nothing. We want to know nothing. Go to the person who is making the claim and try to work it out with them.)
And it just struck me as sooooo sad. Here is this website with beautiful jewelry, inspirational jewelry at that. Empowerment and faith are big themes in this woman's jewelry line. (I'm purposely being vague because Etsy claims that that infringement notice is confidential - again, what the fuck. But I really don't need to go seeking legal problems.) Anyway, here is all this beautiful jewelry by an apparently successful artist, which pulls quotes and design inspiration from all kinds of well known literature and religious books.
Now imagine that all literature - all the history of art and religion from the past, oh, couple thousands of years, was trademarked, and that the only jewelry this woman could sell was the one eight-word phrase that she managed to stake a legal claim onto.
I was going to write her an email to ask about her claim, and perhaps gently point out that her legal strategy kind of contradicts her art, but then I received a second notice from Etsy: the infringement claim had been retracted. I was free to relist my bracelet.
So I did. And made a new charm for my own personal fucking charm bracelet.
This isn't to say that there aren't slimy people who really do just copy other people's work, and purposely come up with some loophole to avoid getting caught. Plagiarism sucks. Lazy people suck. But art and creativity require inspiration, evolution and room to breathe. Trademarks - and the worry about trademarks - can really hinder that. I know artists who are so paranoid that they might accidentally copy someone's idea that they won't even allow themselves to view art in their field, lest their subconscious betray them and introduce an element that someone else has already used.
My opinion is: CALM THE FUCK DOWN. There are only so many colors to paint with, chords to play, or ways to string beads. As long as you aren't intentionally trying to mimic someone else, chances are, there are elements that you think are unique that many thousands of other people have also come up with. That's fine. It is your attempt that matters.
And Taylor Swift? Who famously sicced her legal team upon the makers of Etsy who dared quote her lyrics on their t-shirts and coffee mugs? Girl - those people are your FANS. They are the ones buying your albums and tickets to your concerts. Your performance is your art. Let the kids express their freaky fandom - it only benefits you.
These are just my opinions. Obviously nobody asked for them, and nobody is going to change any laws based on them. But as the writer Maria Papova, creator of Brainpickings.org, said in a podcast I listened to recently (how's that for a vague citation? sorry!), at some point we have to create the work we want to see exist in the world. In her case, it was creating a website rich in content without plastering it with advertising to pay the bills. She is an inspiration. If you're not already reading Brainpickings, you should start. And send her a few bucks in thanks when you can.
There's probably some lawyer who'd like to claim she's copying Gandhi, who famously said "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
I prefer the believe that great minds think alike - that's why great ideas resonate with like minded individuals. It is a cause to be celebrated, not sued over. So I made a new key chain.
Be the fucking change.