A Prince by any other name…

When Prince Rogers Nelson passed away on 26 April 2016 at age 57, fans mourned, musicians paid tribute and radios around the globe played the classic hit “Purple Rain” on high rotation. Prince was without a doubt one of the biggest music and fashion icons the world has ever seen, known for his eclectic work, flamboyant stage presence, extravagant dress and make up and wide vocal range.

But no icon is immune to the law – Prince encountered some difficulties relating to the artistic and financial control of his intellectual property during his life and it appears that he did not have his affairs properly in order at the time of his death. This is significant because Prince was not only a musical genius but also an artist and inventor. Prince was responsible for the below keyboard design and filed a US design patent in respect thereof, which expired a few years ago.

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In 1993, Prince famously appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek after a dispute with Warner Bros. over the artistic and financial control of his music. He released the following statement to the media: “The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to The Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to product more money for Warner Bros…”. “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was referred to as “The Love Symbol” until his contract with Warner Bros. expired in 2000 when he reverted to his birth name. The Love Symbol logo remained a significant part of Prince’s brand – he used the logo on his album artwork and continued to play a guitar in the shape of The Love Symbol. Interestingly, Prince returned to Warner Bros in 2014.

Prince and/or his legal representatives seemed to neglect the maintenance of his trade mark registrations. Consider this unusual timeline: Prince filed a trade mark application in America for his name in 1996 in respect of clothing goods and entertainment services. However, this trade mark was allowed to lapse in 2004. In 2005, Prince instructed a different law firm to re-file the application which also lapsed in 2013. In 2014, Prince enlisted the services of yet another law firm to file the trade mark application again. This application has recently been scheduled for publication. Prince also obtained protection for his Love Symbol logo in 2014 in respect of sound recordings and videotapes featuring music and entertainment, posters, publications, bumper stickers and stickers, clothing and entertainment services. These trade mark registrations remain in force today.

A more complex issue is who controls Prince’s likeness and image. Minnesota, where Prince spent most of his life, has no law allowing family members to inherit the right to control or license someone’s image. In Prince’s case, this “right of publicity” could be worth millions of dollars – this right includes control over Prince’s hair styles, outfits, big shoes and the motorcycle for which he became so well known. It appears that Minnesota state courts could recognize the right to publicity but Prince’s family would have to approach the courts in order to be granted this right and it is not certain that they would be successful in their claim, especially given that there is no precedent.

It was recently revealed that Prince did not have a will when he died. This means that the ownership of his intellectual property will be called into question. Prince’s musical compositions and lyrics and his artistic work, such as The Love Symbol, are protected by copyright. In the US, copyright protection subsists in an artist’s work for his lifetime plus an additional 70 years. If Prince had personal ownership of his work, his copyright would vest in his heirs for another 70 years. However, at this stage, it is uncertain who Prince’s heirs are. The media has speculated that Prince’s estate totals more than US$300 million, so it’s no wonder that more than 700 people are suddenly claiming to be related to Prince. Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

Kim Rademeyer – Partner

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