Prince: Who owns the rights to the legacy of a genius?

Prince was fiercely determined to protect his intellectual property, but how well others might profit from his legacy hinges on how astute he was about arranging for control of his music after death.

Prince is one of relatively few recording artists believed to have possessed ownership of his master recordings and much of his own music publishing.

“Ownership of his catalogue will follow his estate,” said veteran Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer Jay Cooper. “Ownership of the masters will go to whoever inherits it from his estate.”

At stake is music that has sold over 36m copies in the US alone since 1978, plus hundreds of songs that are reported to remain unreleased in his vaults.

The key unanswered question about the fate of Prince’s intellectual property is whether the recording artist had a valid will or estate plan in place at the time of his death, lawyers said.

Twice divorced with no surviving children, he apparently lacked any immediately identifiable heirs.

“I hope for his sake that he had an estate plan, especially with no heirs,” said attorney Lee Phillips, who represented Prince during the singer’s 20s when he made his first blockbuster album, Purple Rain.

Through instructions in a will to a trustee, he could posthumously restrict the granting of commercial licenses to his music, and thus “continue, in effect, from the grave to control the usage of his songs”, said Phillips.

“Who knows if he even has a will? He was a unique person.”

Absent a will, inheritance would be determined by a probate court, subject to the laws of succession in Prince’s home state of Minnesota, said Cooper.

Prince was almost as well known for an unyielding defence of his artistic rights as he was for his music.

So assertive was he in maintaining creative control that during a bitter contract battle with Warner Bros in the 1990s, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled the word “slave” on his forehead in performances.

The dispute centred at least in part on Prince’s desire to release his music more frequently than the label was willing.

Prince found it “abhorrent” that he would “use that type of intellectual creativity and pour everything into it and give to people only to have somebody else own it at the end of the day”, said Owen Husney, the star’s first manager.

Prince ultimately made peace with Warner, reaching a deal in 2014 to regain ownership of his master recordings in return for allowing the label to digitally remaster and reissue his back catalogue.

He had been similarly unstinting in limiting the use of his material on YouTube and digital music streaming platforms such as Spotify, although he made his catalogue available on the artist-owned, premium subscription streaming service Tidal, launched by Jay Z.

Prince performs some moves during his concert at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork on July 7, 1990. The American star played just 16 songs during his set on Leeside and the gig wasunfavourably compared to Michael Jackson’s concerts at the same venue two years earlier. Pictures: Irish Examiner Archive
Prince performs some moves during his concert at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork on July 7, 1990. The American star played just 16 songs during his set on Leeside and the gig was unfavourably compared to Michael Jackson’s concerts at the same venue two years earlier. Pictures: Irish Examiner Archive

Still, news of his death sparked an immediate bump in online sales of his music, with nine of the top 10-selling albums on iTunes belonging to Prince, led by 2001’s compilation The Very Best of Prince. Eight of the top-selling singles were Prince tracks, led by ‘Purple Rain’.

Prince: Who owns the rights to the legacy of a genius?

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