-Martha Engel, Attorney
My home state of Minnesota prides itself primarily on three things: our ability to withstand our winters, our 10,000 lakes, and our dearly beloved Prince. While we take a beating when it comes to our sports teams, all of his purple life we had Prince. Just like you might do for your neighbors, he opened his Paisley Park doors to any one of us to come hang out and dance until the wee hours of the morning. Minnesotans kept a respectful distance from him and honored his desire for privacy, even though Paisley Park borders a well-traveled highway in the western suburbs. Maybe it was just that we all knew we weren’t cool enough to talk to him, but honestly what would you even try talk to him about?!? After I moved out of the state for college, Prince was often a symbolic rock when I was feeling a little homesick. When my freshman year roommate decorated her side of the room with dozens of photos of my two least favorite things (Brett Favre in a Packers uniform and Dave Matthews) to mark her territory, I blared Prince from my side of the room. When the Vikings “set a new mark for futility” and lost the NFC to the Packers, Chappelle’s True Hollywood Story skit about Prince aired. My Wisconsin-born friends suddenly found being from ‘Sota to not be so pitiful. “Where is Lake Minnetonka?” “Did he really have parties like that?” “Wait, he still does?!”
Prince’s death last week rocked Minnesota pretty hard. That cool, funky vibe that emanated from his small 5’2″ frame felt noticeably absent in Minneapolis over the weekend. His aura made you want him to drop some insane, sexy, humorous, wise, out of this world one-liner on you (pay attention heirs, I hope a desk calendar compilation of these is forthcoming). As much as the world may have been surprised by stories coming out of Minnesota about our state’s relationship with him, I was equally surprised by the extent of all of the Prince tributes worldwide. As the video from the SNL 40th anniversary party makes clear, even the cool people at the lunch table thought he was too cool for them. When you grow up thinking of him as your neighbor who floats on purple smoke, threw great parties, and oh also happened to be a musical genius, I never really noticed the true extent of his international stardom.
While he was known for his privacy, he also was known to be strict about his copyrights in his works – probably even more so than Kanye West. But…he did not have a will, which means the ownership of his copyrights in his works will certainly be called into question. The copyright term for an individual’s work is “the author’s life plus an additional 70 years.” Assuming that he owns them personally, rather than as an asset of some corporate entity, that would give his heirs ownership rights in these works for another 70 years. The ownership of the copyrights in his songs, and what “heirs” get to lay claim to them, is certainly going to be a hotly contested battle.
And then there are the trademark rights for a guy who once was only referred to by a symbol or The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Even before it was confirmed by a judge yesterday that Prince had no will, his trademark filings gave subtle hints that maybe his affairs were not fully in order. All of the applications that I found appear to be owned by Paisley Park Enterprises. The maintenance filing for his registration for PRINCE (registered after his Love Symbol period) for “entertainment services, namely, live musical and vocal performances by an individual” was not filed when due in 2004, so that registration was cancelled. It was refiled in 2005 by a different firm, and again the maintenance filing was not timely filed and so that registration was cancelled in 2013. It was refiled in October 2014 by yet another firm and just scheduled to publish two days ago. Meanwhile, his iconic “Love Symbol” is handled by yet another firm — that seems to have even handled simple recent filings in paper filings, which is a rather unusual practice in the last few years due to a preference for electronic filings by the USPTO. It makes you wonder what actually was going on behind the scenes here.
With one more verse to the Prince IP story, I need another piece of your ear. You see not only was Prince a musical genius, he was also an inventor of this keyboard design and had a design patent for this, which expired a few years ago.
Who will end up owning Prince’s IP rights – and controlling his legacy – remains to be seen, but as I just overheard someone say while I finished drafting this post “the people of Minnesota should own it.”