May 16, 2016

Who Owns Prince's Music?

This article was originally published on GenFKD

After Prince’s untimely passing, there’s been a remarkable bump in his music sales – 230,000 albums and one million singles were sold in one day – and frustration over the fact that his music can’t be found on music streaming services. It’s left a lot of people wondering who owns Prince’s music and what will happen to his catalog now.

While we can’t answer that question for sure, we can take a look at the behind-the-scenes of music rights to understand who might have the power to decide whether or not the public gets to hear Prince’s unreleased catalog.

Copyright 101
Before you can understand who owns, controls access to, and stands to profit from Prince’s music, you need to know a little bit about how copyrights work.

A copyright is a legal right to a creative work that gives the copyright owner the right to control how that work is used. In the United States, it gives the copyright holder the exclusive right — or ability to grant others the right — to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform, display, and create derivate works based on that work. When we ask who “owns” the rights to music, we’re talking about the person or company that has these rights.

In music, there are two separate pieces of work that are copyrighted: the song itself. and the recording. For example, there’s the actual lyrics and melody of “Purple Rain” and then there’s the recording of Prince performing those lyrics and melody.

The rights to a song are often owned by a music publishing company and/or the songwriters, while the rights to a recording are often owned by a record label or, in rare circumstances, the musician. The copyrights on most modern songs are good for the life of the author, plus 70 years.

So, when we ask who owns Prince’s music we’re asking who has the rights – likely separately – to the songs and the recordings for the next 70 years.
Prince’s battle with the music industry
Prince signed to Warner Music in 1977 and found huge success in the 1980s with the popularity of music videos. He used that power to establish his own record label, funded partly by Warner, where he released eight of his own albums and discovered other artists.

In the 1990s, Prince had a very public battle with his record label, Warner Brothers Records, who wanted him to release one record per year rather than release new music as often as he liked. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, sported the word “slave” on his face, and eventually left Warner after fulfilling the requirement of his contract.

He continued to release his music more creatively through various record labels or even on his own, even giving away free copies of his albums with his concert tickets or in the newspaper and creating his own subscription service online. Despite his innovation distribution strategies, he was strongly against unauthorized use of his music online and pursued action against places like Youtube and the Pirate Bay.

In 2014, Prince went back to Warner Brothers in a news-making deal where he regained control of both his recordings and his songs while Warner Brothers got exclusive licensing rights to release his music. He used these rights to exercise strict control over his music making it available on very few streaming sites.
To whom did Prince give control?
The Warner Brothers deal made Prince one of very few artists to have full control his music. So, the answer to who controls Prince’s music – and any unreleased music – depends on the content of his will. This is interesting because most artists don’t own their own music so the designated trustee in their wills usually only stands to inherit royalties and perhaps control the use of their image.

Considering how strictly Prince regulated his music, it seems likely he would have established detailed instructions on how his music should be used, but it seems we will just have to wait and see what happens.