Prince: The King of Copyright - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
Prince will always be remembered for doing things his own way, building a legacy as one of the most dynamic performers and prolific musicians in recent memory. The artist, who passed away suddenly on Thursday morning, also gained a reputation in the legal arena; he was fiercely protective of copyrights in his creative works and rejected most online dissemination of his copyright-protected work. The artist and music companies representing him sometimes pushed the boundaries of copyright law with disputes that set legal precedents and occasionally garnered criticism for his aggressively litigious approach.
Prince, Copyright
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Prince: The King of Copyright

Prince: The King of Copyright

Prince will always be remembered for doing things his own way, building a legacy as one of the most dynamic performers and prolific musicians in recent memory. The artist, who passed away suddenly on Thursday morning, also gained a reputation in the legal arena; he was fiercely protective of copyrights in his creative works and rejected most online dissemination of his copyright-protected work. The artist and music companies representing him sometimes pushed the boundaries of copyright law with disputes that set legal precedents and occasionally garnered criticism for his aggressively litigious approach.

 

The legal battle for which Prince is perhaps best-known began in 1993, when he dropped his name in favour of an unpronounceable graphic symbol and began to adorn his face with the word “slave.”[1] Borne out of a lifelong obsession with protecting his creative works, he protested for years against the level of control that Warner Brothers had over his career. He finally split with the record label in 1996 and worked independently for 18 years, before returning in 2014 following negotiation of a deal that gave him ownership of his full catalogue of songs.[2]

 

Control over the music itself, based on copyright ownership, is where power is mostly held in the music industry. Prince recognized this early in his career – when negotiating his first record contract with Warner Brothers as a teenager, he managed to secure the ownership of the publishing rights to his music. [3] This was unusual in the industry; new artists often struggle to gain control over their music due to a lack of bargaining power at the outset of their careers. Congress recognized this potential for exploitation of emerging artists, and in 1976 updated the copyright law to include termination rights. Section 203 of the Copyright Act[4] now allows artists to terminate contracts made after January 1, 1978 if certain requirements are met after 35 years.[5] This recognises young artists’ lack of bargaining power and permits them to fully buy back the rights to their music or to negotiate a better deal based on past successes. Prince was a strong advocate of this idea, and later in his career encouraged young artists to strive for a similar level of intellectual property awareness.[6]

 

In 1999, Prince was granted judgment in his favour against a Chicago guitar maker who created a guitar in the shape of the symbol which Prince had been using as a moniker to rebel against his record company.[7] The creator of the symbol-shaped guitar had hoped to sell it to Prince, but instead Prince again showed his litigious side when he secured a summary judgment against the creator and commissioned his own version of the guitar some years later.

 

Fast forward to the digital age, and Prince’s attitude remained the same. His fans flocked online in the immediate aftermath of his death, seeking to stream his music whilst mourning his passing. Many of these searches were futile, due to Prince’s vigilant assertion of American copyright restrictions. He hired a company called Web Sherriff to comprehensively remove as much of his copyrighted content from the internet as possible, which has been largely successful amongst video-sharing sites.[8] His legal teams distributed a large amount of DMCA takedown notices, including a demanding removal of “Vine” video clips from Twitter, where were a mere 6 seconds or less long.[9]

 

Despite this, it was clear that Prince wished to share his music, just on his own terms. In the anarchic Napster era between 2001 and 2006, he ran a subscription-based site for new music called the NPG Music Club, for which he was recognized with a ‘Webby’ award in recognition of his “visionary use of the Internet to distribute music and connect with audiences.”[10]

 

Prince occasionally pushed the boundaries of copyright protection to the point where he polarized fans’ opinions. One of his most infamous legal battles was the “dancing baby” copyright case[11] that centred on a 29-second home video of a baby dancing to a barely-intelligible rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy.” [12] The court ruled against Universal Music Corp., which enforced Prince’s copyrights, concluding that the company failed to consider whether the content in the video qualifies as fair use (a requirement of the DMCA takedown process) before trying to have the content removed.[13] In 2014, Prince actually took a legal battle to 22 anonymous online fans for $1 million each who allegedly posted links to downloads of bootleg concert videos.[14] His lawyers voluntarily dropped the suit after the links were removed, but the legal battle seemed a heavy-handed strategy.

 

Prince was larger than life, and incessantly pushed boundaries. At the heart of all of his legal disputes was a dear love for his creations and a burning desire to retain their control. His legacy will live on through his music and his influence on others’ music, but his passionate protection of artists’ rights may also continue to affect the music industry just as much.

 

[1] http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/a44218/prince-1995-esquire-gentleman/

[2] http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6062423/prince-deal-with-warner-bros-new-album-coming

[3] http://www.forbes.com/sites/tonybradley/2016/04/22/the-legacy-of-princes-purple-reign-over-digital-content/#1ac801422154

[4] http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap2.html#203

[5] Section 203 Copyright Act 1978 (a)(3)

[6] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/08/09/430883654/prince-compares-record-contracts-to-slavery-in-rare-meeting-with-media

[7] Pickett v. Prince, 52 F. Supp. 2d 893 (N.D. Ill. 1999).

[8] http://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-you-cant-find-princes-music-online

[9] http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2016/04/21/the-prince-of-copyright-enforcement/

[10] http://webbyawards.com/press/press-releases/may-31-2006-prince-to-receive-webby-lifetime-achievement-award/

[11] Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., 801 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 2015).

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1KfJHFWlhQ

[13] Id. at 1142.

[14] https://www.scribd.com/doc/201201287/Prince-v-Chodera-Complaint

Ted Mulvany

Ted Mulvany is an LL.M Student at the Fordham University School of Law, with a concentration in Intellectual Property & Information Law. He is a staff member for the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal, and a Research Assistant for the Fordham Intellectual Property Institute.