Learning From Prince, and His Very Public Contractual Disputes

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 21, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The world lost another great performer today when Prince died at the age of 57. Prince was a master of pop music, whose infectious, prodigious creations brought him dozens of top hits, from "When Doves Cry," to "Little Red Corvette," to the highly-underrated "Batdance." Prince was also a cultural force, creating a public persona almost as influential as his music.

But, while much of the media today will focus on Prince's contributions to music and culture, we lawyers are reminded of another major facet of Prince's history: his very long, very public, and very frequent contractual disputes with his record labels and sometimes even his fans.

From Friend, to Foe, to Symbol

At the height of his fame, Prince was in a very public fight with Warner, a conflict that inspired him to release records at a rapid pace and which gave birth to "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince." But before they were very public enemies, Prince and Warner Music were longtime partners. Their fallout is a lesson in the importance of managing relationships -- contractually, artistically, and personally.

Warner Music signed prince in 1977, when he was only 18 years old and saw him rise to fame with the birth of MTV, his mastery of music videos, and the release of "Purple Rain."

Like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones before him, Prince's massive success inspired him to renegotiate his contract. Warner complied, funding Prince's new label, Paisley Park Records, which signed new stars like Sheila E and established talents, like George Clinton.

But the pair's friendly relationship did not last. Prince's artistry often ran against Warner's practical concerns regarding marketability and commercial success. After Prince released his so-called "Love Symbol Album" (the album's name was only the unpronounceable symbol that Prince later adopted as his own), Prince and Warner repeatedly clashed over money and music.

Prince began appearing with "Slave" written on his face -- a very public comparison of his contract and enslavement. He changed his name to a symbol, later called "Love Symbol #2." (This forced Warner to email thousands of floppy disks with the symbol to journalists -- as Love Symbol #2 wasn't a typical typographic character and the common approximation, "O(+>", didn't have quite the same gravitas.)

But, to Prince's credit, he knew how to perform, both musically and contractually. He pumped out album after album to meet the obligations of his contract -- often against Warner's protestations. In 1996, he had finally completed his contract with Warner. His next album was titled, pointedly, "Emancipation."

Not Just Warner

Of course, Prince's struggles weren't just against Warner. Prince signed a deal with Columbia to release his 2007 album Planet Earth. Yet, unbeknownst to his label, he had also worked with the Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, to give the album away for free to their readers. The result: the album was never sold in the U.K.

In the later years of his life, Prince has aggressively gone after websites and individuals that distributed his music online -- or, as he put it, has sought to "reclaim his art on the Internet."

That included legal action against YouTube, eBay, and the torrent website Pirate Bay. But it also included some significant overreach, as when Universal, which owned the publishing rights to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," sued a mother who uploaded a short video of her children dancing with the song in the background. (Universal lost that lawsuit, which helped expand important fair use precedent.)

Perhaps showing a gentler side, in 2014 Prince dropped a $22 million copyright lawsuit against 22 bloggers and Facebook users.

And, in a sign that not all disagreements are insurmountable, two years ago Prince struck a new deal with Warner Brothers, rejoining the label in exchange for gaining ownership of his entire catalog.

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