Prince’s Legacy of Music, Copyright Law and More

The artist Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) leaves behind, not only a legacy of music and pop culture, but also a legal legacy dealing with contract law, copyright litigation, and the law related to name changes. Prince’s famous name change in the 1990s during a contractual fight with Warner Brothers is legendary. He changed his name to a glyph that merged the symbols for man and woman and was also the title of his most recent album. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as the fourth-boldest career move in rock history. Frustrated because Warner Bros. refused to accommodate his prolific ways, he took to appearing in public with the word slave written on his face. After the name change, he no longer considered himself a slave, and released the album Emancipation that he said was based on his studies “of the Egyptians, the building of the pyramids and how the pyramids were related to the constellations. They were a message from the Egyptians about how civilization really started.” The name change had Warner Brothers scrambling to send out font software so reporters could incorporate the symbol into stories. Many of those writing about the musician just found it easier to speak about him as “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Years later, Prince reclaimed his name and began a series of dealings with various record labels and in 2014 struck a landmark deal with Warner brothers regaining control over his back catalog. The effort was in large part aided by an aspect of copyright law that allows authors to grab back rights from publishers after 35 years.

Internet searches for classic recordings like Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day and Sign o’ the Times yield few results whether on top streaming venues like Spotify and Rhapsody or other outlets like Tidal that boast an extensive catalog. This scarcity is a testament to the fierce and independent nature of this musician. When Napster appeared on the scene and more recently, Prince was so protective of his music copyrights that he wanted to change the law to stop other artists from covering his songs. When another artist who uploaded to YouTube a 29-second clip of her infant dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” he directed Universal Music, pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to send a takedown notice to YouTube, which led to a lawsuit in 2007. In 2015, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that copyright holders must consider fair use when sending takedowns. See Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., 801 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 2015). In 2014, his efforts to protect his music copyrights led to his suing 22 Facebook users for linking to bootlegs of his recordings. The lawsuit was withdrawn as he later explained to the BBC, “Nobody sues their fans … I have some bootlegs of Lianne [La Havas] but I wouldn’t sell them. But fans sharing music with each other, that’s cool.”

DigitalSee the Brooklyn Law Library item Digital Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet by Jessica Litman (Call # KF3030.1 .L58 2001) which tells how copyright lobbyists succeeded in persuading Congress to enact laws greatly expanding copyright owners’ control over individuals’ private uses of their works. The efforts to enforce these new rights have resulted in highly publicized legal battles between established media and new upstarts. The author, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, argues that the 1998 copyright law as an incoherent patchwork and that there is a needfor reforms that reflect common sense and the way people actually behave in their daily digital interactions.