This article originally appeared in the 2.6.14 issue of Metroland
Well, Prince continued his purple reign of terror against
his fans last week when he hauled off and sued 20+ people, most of whom were
identified only by their online handles, for posting links to places Prince
bootlegs were available for download.
Never mind that courts have consistently found that merely linking to
possibly infringing sites isn’t infringement, or that the $1
million-per-defendant claim was laughable, or that identifying most of the
defendants would be impossible.
day or two of now-predictable online outrage and derision, the lawsuit was
dropped, with Prince people saying something about how all the “stealing” had stopped so
they were done.
quick to point out that this was merely the latest in a long history of online
dickishness by the diminutive Violet Valet, many citing the 1999 case of Prince v. Uptown.
Which calls for a little walk down memory
1999, I got a call from Doug at the League of Arts that a fax (we used faxes
back then) had just come in from a guy in Boston looking for help with a
lawsuit involving Prince.
Turns out it
was a second-year lawyer named Alex Hahn, who was a big Prince fan (and who
would go on to write the excellent bio Possessed-
The Rise and Fall of Prince
), who had
been a member of the great Boston band The Volcano Suns, and who’d been
contacted by a Swedish online Prince fanzine called Uptown.
Uptown had just been sued by Prince, or
rather, by Prince Rogers Nelson, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
me the complaint.
It was one of the most
disgusting legal documents I’d ever seen.
Prince accused Uptown not only of posting some links to illegal
downloads (like it mattered: this was 1999, pre-Napster, pre-iTunes, pre-iPod),
but also of posting “unauthorized” photos of Prince, thereby somehow profiting
from Prince’s likeness.
Prince (who was referred to as “The Artist”) had registered copyrights and
trademarks for that silly little can-opener-like icon he’d been using as his
“name”, and he was suing Uptown for infringement for using it while referring
to him in articles.
In other words, he
was suing Uptown for talking about him.
gold-rush time online.
People were more
interested that dentalfloss.com got $100 million of second-round funding than
they were about IP bullying. I’d been doing a lot of work with RtMark, a
pre-Yesmen anti-bullying group, so I kind of knew the territory.
And I’d done just enough litigation in my 10
year career to make me an extreme danger to everyone else involved, whether
client, foe, witness, or court.
fearless for no better reason than I was a well-meaning idiot with an attitude.
I had to help with this case.
researched the bejesus out it.
learned that Prince’s people had given a floppy-disk (remember them?)
containing “the unpronounceable symbol” to Uptown with a request that the
symbol be used in referring to Prince.
We learned that the symbol bore an uncanny resemblance to an Egyptian
hieroglyph meaning “soapstone.”
learned that Prince’s people had recently asked Uptown to become part of some
grand online world of which Prince would be the grand lavender overlord.
And we confirmed what we already knew, that
Prince’s claims were, legally speaking, a steaming pile of shit.
far the better writer, wrote our answer to the complaint.
Now, pleadings are supposed to be short and
concise statements of a litigant’s position.
Alex wrote a freakin’ book!
was brilliant—we needed to get our story out big and fast, and at the time
there wasn’t nearly the ability to “go viral” that there is now.
So Alex told the whole sordid tale in
Uptown’s answer, and we circulated it where we could.
I knew a wire service entertainment reporter,
David Bauder, who used to work at the Times Union, and we made sure he got one.
In the answer we asked for, among other
things, the cancellation of Prince’s copyrights and trademarks in the
unpronounceable symbol, and for damages for subjecting Uptown to a frivolous
and vexatious lawsuit.
after we filed the answer, Bauder posted an article about how Prince had called him up
and announced he was
rerecording all 16 of his Warners records and releasing them on his own
Bauder, who’s based much of his
career on fawning celebrity puff-pieces, dutifully reported this nonsense, and
mentioned that Uptown had filed its answer in the closing paragraph.
Which got chopped most places the story ran.
We immediately noticed Prince’s
In the old federal
courthouse in Brooklyn, where people could, pre-9/11, saunter in and out.
Prince’s lawyers vociferously opposed this,
saying Uptown just wanted to “exploit” Prince’s image some more.
Now, there had just been a rather
well-publicized video deposition of our President saying things like “it
depends on what the meaning of the word is is” and “I did not have sex with
that woman.” The court ruled the video deposition would go on. You know, what’s
good for The Prez is good for The Artist.
settled within days.
publishing “unauthorized” articles and pictures of Prince for another 10 years.
Paul Rapp is a crusty
old entertainment attorney who’s been all ‘round this big wide world, ain’t
nothin’ he ain’t seen.
Think I was too hard on Bauder? Well, then, make up your own mind:
The Artist is digging deep into Prince's past
By David Bauder, The Associated Press
April 18, 1999 12:00 AM
Even for a notorious control freak, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is planning a pretty audacious
challenge to his old record company.
Unhappy at his failure to gain possession of the music he recorded for Warner Bros., the Artist said he
will re-record the music and sell it on his own.
That's everything. "Purple Rain," "Little Red Corvette," "Raspberry Beret," "Kiss," the whole catalog.
He recorded 17 albums for Warners beginning in 1978 when he was seen as a teen-age prodigy until
their nasty divorce five years ago, not including a greatest hits package.
Re-creating the music shouldn't be much of a problem. That's because on most of the records he
played all the instruments himself and provided all the vocals, the Artist said.
"Fleetwood Mac would be hard-pressed to do something like this," he said. "The only people I would
have to argue with are the people in my head."
He's not discouraging anyone from buying his old records; he still gets paid when that happens. But he
gets paid a lot more if he sells them himself, and he wants to own recordings of the music which made
his name -- before he changed it, of course.
He has repeatedly made known his interest in obtaining the rights to his own master recordings, said
Bob Merlis, a spokesman for Warner Bros. Records. That doesn't mean there have been any
negotiations toward that end.
"We'll always talk to somebody," Merlis said. "It's extremely unlikely that we will ever give an artist,
with no compensation, original works that were sold to us under a valid contract."
Re-recording material isn't unprecedented; Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis did it when they
switched record companies in the early days of rock 'n' roll, Merlis said. But it's unusual today, and
most contracts with artists prohibit such re-recording for a set period of time. He wouldn't comment on
The Artist's contract.
"I would be interested to hear what it sounded like," Merlis said.
Just before last New Year's Eve, Warner Bros. distributed to radio stations a single version of Prince's
song, "1999," that was originally released in 1982, sparking some renewed sales. The Artist responded
by re-recording the song in several different versions and selling the CD via his Web site.
But that was just one song -- not hundreds.
The Artist insists that much of his early material will sound better when redone since recording
technology has improved. He won't say whether he will be faithful to the old versions or if he will tweak them. He gave no timetable for their release.
"Most artists lose their voice, their hair and their bands," the 40-year-old singer said. "That's not going
to happen to me."
The workaholic songwriter said he's composing an opera, presumably in his spare time. He's also
making another studio album, and in another departure from his work habits, he is allowing other
producers to work on his music, and is writing songs with others.
He won't identify the collaborators, other than to say, "I'm working with some people you wouldn't
expect me to be working with." They might even remain unidentified on the final release due to
And how will the strong-willed Artist deal with it when a collaborator disagrees with him on how
"They know it's my album," he said. "They're going to give me the last word."
Since leaving Warner Bros., the Artist briefly had a distribution deal with EMI. Most recently, he's
been selling his music primarily through orders placed to his Web site, including last year's box set,
But he said he's likely to work out a deal with a major label to release his next album. He said he has
no problem working with a big label. "What I had a problem with is ownership of the work when I
Re-recording would be the latest salvo in his decade-long feud with Warners. It was that feud that led
to him scrawling "slave" on his face during some performances, and to legally changing his name to
the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. While he has his own typically eccentric spin, he's also a model
for the growing trend of musicians taking control of their business affairs.
His "freedom" mantra is actually consistent with the unusual announcement that he had renewed his
vows with his wife, Mayte, in February. He said they wanted to "transcend" their marriage without the
encumbrance of a legal contract. But he stressed that he and his wife, a former dancer whom he
married in 1996, did not get a divorce.
His album sales have steadily tumbled since "Purple Rain" sold 12 million. That's not unexpected,
since few musicians stay on top for so long. But his decision to stand apart from the traditional record
business machinery also probably ensures that his hit-making days are over.
He said he's much happier now.
"It's more fun for me because you can actually see the difference in the music," he said. "You can feel
the freedom in the air when you're like that and you're not thinking about anything like what is the
next single or how can I make my image look good for the video.
"All that stuff is in your head whether you're thinking about it or not."It's the Artist vs. the World Wide
The Artist has gone on a legal offensive against Web sites devoted to him. At least one site has
responded by going after his symbol.
The copyright and trademark infringement lawsuits, filed in February against nine Web sites, accuse
them of selling bootlegged recordings by the former Prince and offering access to downloads of his
Through the format known as MP3, the selling and trading of music downloaded through computers
has become wildly popular. It has made the music industry, and some artists, nervous because of a
perceived threat to the CD and tape market.
"The Artist clearly wants to stop unauthorized distribution of his music," said Michael Elkin, his
attorney. "The material that he puts out is the material that he selects. People should not be permitted
to release product without his consent."
In trying to stop the Web sites' activities, the Artist has also alleged unauthorized use of photographs,
sales of books and a CD-ROM. He also said people have been infringing upon his trademark of the
odd symbol that he has used as his name since 1993.
One defendant, Uptown Productions, filed a countersuit last week that claimed the Artist had no right
to trademark his symbol. The former Prince can't claim unauthorized use because he frequently
encouraged people to use it as a substitute for his name, said the company, which operates a Web site
and distributes a fan magazine.
Uptown also claims the symbol is in the public domain since it's a copy of an ancient symbol for
Paul Rapp, the lawyer who represents Uptown, said he believed the Artist was going on the attack to
chill competition because he wanted to put out a fan magazine of his own.
"We really just want to be left alone," he said.
The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, shown in an undated portrait, is planning to re-record all 17
albums he did on the Warner Brothers label.