If you’re interested in popular culture or copyright law, or especially if you’re one of those few who happens to be into both, then you surely can’t have missed the recent controversy surrounding efforts by one Prince Rogers Nelson to remove images and video from online media sharing platforms, and now even from fansites. In September, when the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince was just targeting YouTube (somewhat successfully) and the Pirate Bay, one could at least acknowledge he was focusing on genuine copyright infringement, even if one thought he was making a mistake. But now,
Fan sites dedicated to Prince say they have been served legal notice to remove all images of the singer, his lyrics and “anything linked to Prince’s likeness”, and have vowed to fight what they are calling censorship.
This undertaking is beyond vexatious. This is, after all, the same man who gave away his last album in the UK’s Sunday Mail. Is he a Radiohead-like supporter of “free culture” or is he a jealous protector of his identity? He’s apparently both, and this isn’t necessarily contradictory — no more so than any photographer who has different copyright settings for different photos on his or her Flickr account.
Speaking of which, lately I’d been wondering about the photo of Prince on his Wikipedia entry (at right). Specifically, I was wondering why it was still there. Edit Wikipedia long enough, and you’ll notice that one thing its editors closely monitor is the uploading of new images. Not only would the Wikimedia Foundation prefer to avoid being sued, the school of thought known as “deletionism” seems to be the dominant ethos.
Turns out the photograph remains where it is (for the time being) because it was uploaded by the photographer himself, one James Hughes of Ballymena, Northern Ireland. That settled that, but that wasn’t all. What was the story behind the photo? Had he been contacted by Prince’s lawyers? Via FlickrMail messages, he told me this week that so far he has heard nothing, and is pretty sure Prince has “bigger fish to fry.” He doesn’t expect Prince’s ill-conceived plan to get far enough to affect his work, although he did seem amused by the whole thing. The photo itself is from Prince’s first visit to Ireland in the 1990s, which Hughes shot for a local magazine. As he explained:
I remember they where very strict with us up front for 3 songs and his managment were all beautiful girls. Apparently he didn’t trust men, though he always had his heavies around. I was told off for taking pictures of bouncers lifting fans out of the front who had passed out. I think hes one of the greatest songwriters alive though he’s also a nut case, like most people in the business both go hand in hand.
I’m not myself a huge Prince fan (I do have 1999 in my iTunes) but out of two Prince fans I spoke to for this post, Hughes was one of two to call him crazy. And that’s probably all I’ve got to say about it. It’s unfortunate for the Prince fans, especially the die hards who run fansites and now find themselves under attack by the very object of their infatuation. I am no copyright expert, but it seems to me that while Prince is not ultimately going to win, he will get further than most simply because he has the means to drag it out. The good news is that his opponents… that is, his fans, have joined together in a coalition against him, Prince Fans United.
I have to wonder if, as old media monoliths dissolve and new alliances of artists rise, we’ll see more artists acting like Radiohead or more like Prince. Of course, attitudes and behaviors will depend on the artist, so generalization at this point is risky. As I write this, the old music labels are still here, and they’re still fighting to save a terminal business model. But it’s still my guess that artists (and other celebrities) in the near future will be more accommodating than they are now.
It seems odd that someone who has fought the record labels for most of his career is now making the same mistake of misunderstanding his audience. Maybe it’s not — maybe this whole time he only intended to replace them, not their narrow thinking. Let’s hope he makes a federal case of it — say, Prince v. Prince Fans United — and hope this unprecedented attack on his fan base eventually sets the right precedent.
P.S. Though I don’t usually spend much time thinking about Prince and may never publicly write about him again, I’m clearly irritated by his current agenda. Therefore, below the jump, is my contribution to the vast archive of unauthorized Prince artwork on the Internet.