The late pop star Prince was known in life as 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, 57, who died on Thursday at his home and studio compound in Minnesota, 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 catalog will follow his estate,” veteran Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer Jay Cooper said on Thursday. “Ownership of the masters will go to whoever inherits it from his estate.”
At stake is music featured on more than 30 albums that have sold over 36 million copies in the United State 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,” attorney Lee Phillips, who represented Prince during the singer’s 20s when he made his first blockbuster album, “Purple Rain,” was quoted as telling The Hollywood Reporter.
Through instructions in a will to a trustee, the artist 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,” Phillips said.
But, he added: “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, Cooper said.
Prince was almost as well known for an unyielding defense 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 famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled the word “slave” on his forehead in performances.
The dispute centered 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, told Reuters TV in an interview.
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 catalog, according to trade publication Variety and other media accounts.
The artist had been similarly unstinting in limiting the use of his material on YouTube and digital music streaming platforms such as Spotify and Rhapsody, although he made his catalog available on the artist-owned, premium subscription streaming service Tidal, launched by rapper Jay Z.
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 on iTunes were Prince tracks, led by “Purple Rain.”