Prince's Legal Legacy: Contract Fights, Copyright Battles and Changing His Name

The artist's legal skirmishes are nearly as legendary as the music.
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Mourners scouring the internet to find classic Prince albums such as Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day and Sign o' the Times will find the task almost impossible. Many of the top streaming venues like Spotify and Rhapsody don't have his music, and while there are outlets like Tidal that boast an extensive catalog, the lack of digital omnipresence is in many ways a testament to the fierce and independent nature of this musician.

The story of how Prince — full name Prince Rogers Nelson — changed his name to an unpronounceable "love symbol" in the 1990s during a contractual fight with Warner Bros. is legendary. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as the fourth-boldest career move in rock history. The story goes that the artist wanted to release more music and wanted to own his masters. The record company wouldn't let him. When that happened, he began appearing in public with the word "slave" written across his face. The change of name even had Warners scrambling to send out font software so that 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 fulfilled his contract, reclaimed his name and began a series of promiscuous relationships with various record labels (not to mention lawyers, one of whom says he cycled through them "like underwear"). Then he finally got what he wanted: Prince struck a landmark deal in 2014 with Warners and regained 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. With the deadline looming on his termination rights, leverage shifted to Prince. He was no longer a slave, right?

Prince was able to survive the record industry, but advancing digital technology presented a new challenge. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well, havoc breaks out.

Sure, there have been plenty of musicians who let out screams when Napster came onto the scene, but few were like Prince. He was so fiercely protective, the musician wanted to change the law to stop other artists from covering his songs. And so when one woman named Stephanie Lenz uploaded to YouTube a 29-second clip of her toddler dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," he let it be known to Universal Music that he wasn't happy. Pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the publisher then sent a takedown notice to YouTube, which led Lenz to file a lawsuit in 2007. Nearly a decade later, this litigation is still ticking, with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently handing down a landmark decision holding that copyright holders must consider fair use when sending takedowns. For Prince's efforts, he received the "Raspberry Beret Lifetime Aggrievement Award" from the Electronic Frontier Foundation when it decided to erect a Takedown Hall of Shame.

Throughout the years, Prince has consistently raised eyebrows with an assertiveness bordering on manic.

In 2014, for example, he sued 22 Facebook users for linking to bootlegs of his recordings. A few days after filing, amid a big public backlash, the lawsuit was withdrawn. 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."

Today, Prince's music can be heard on some platforms like Pandora and SiriusXM, which rely on compulsory licenses to perform music and don't need his explicit permission. He's also been a fan of Tidal, the Jay Z-owned, artist-friendly streaming service.

But soon, dozens of his albums — plus all the stuff he hasn't yet released — could be even more widely available than he could ever have imagined (or personally allowed).

"Bluntly, it won’t be his decision to make anymore,” says Howard Weitzman, the attorney for the Michael Jackson estate. "Whoever ends up being the administrators and executors will make those decisions. ... Some people provide in their will how the intellectual property may be used over a period of time, but we don’t know what his estate planning is yet."

Those who have represented him have doubts.

"I hope for his sake that he had an estate plan, especially with no heirs," says Lee Phillips, senior partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, who was Prince's lawyer during the artist's 20s, when he made Purple Rain. "You can write in [the will] saying I’ve formed this trust, such and such is the trustee, and he’s instructed to not grant any licenses for commercial use of my songs. He can continue, in effect, from the grave to control the usage of his songs. Who knows if he even has a will? He was a unique person."  

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