Art often lives on long after the artist, serving as the artist’s legacy for generations. After an extraordinary career, Prince Rogers Nelson, suddenly passed away on April 21, 2016. He leaves a legacy of indisputable successes, as well as a vast array of intellectual property rights. In life, however, Prince struggled to maintain control over his art and, at times, even his name.
In 1993, fed up with the creative constraints of his record label, Warner Bros., Prince tried to break his contract by changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. In a press release regarding the name change, Prince famously stated:
“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 produce more money for Warner Bros.”
The symbol would later be copyrighted as “Love Symbol #2” and used as a trademark on clothing, entertainment services, posters, and sound recordings. Although unsuccessful in breaking the contract, Prince’s use of the symbol resulted in him being known as “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” However, when his contract with Warner Bros. expired in 2000, Prince resumed using his own name.
Prince’s intellectual property woes did not stop there. Prince had two cancelled PRINCE trademark registrations in 2004 and 2013, respectively. In January 2014, Prince also filed a controversial copyright infringement lawsuit against 22 fans for sharing links to bootlegged versions of his recordings on social media. In the same year, Prince filed a Class 25 and 41 trademark application for PRINCE, which was timely approved for publication on April 18, 2016—mere days before his tragic death.
This application is the only PRINCE trademark in Class 41 and specifically for “Entertainment in the nature of live performances by a musical artist, musical band, or musical group; Entertainment services in the nature of live musical performances…”
Trademarks, unlike copyrights, have the unique potential to grant perpetual rights. Prince’s greatest contribution, his music, is protected by copyright law, which only provides a limited term of protection. For works created after January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright is 70 years after the death of the author. Prince’s trademark rights, however, can protect Prince’s rights to his name forever.
Since the pending application is the name of an identifiable person, consent of that person is required. The current PRINCE application identifies “Prince Rogers Nelson” as the identifiable person, whose consent is part of the record. It is the only application that actually lists his full name. All of Prince’s trademarks are owned by his record label Paisley Park Enterprises, Inc., so if the application matures to registration, the PRINCE registration will feature Prince’s full given name despite Prince not being the listed owner.
Trademark registration is a property right that transfers under a will or intestate. It is unknown whether Prince had a will, but it is for Prince’s heirs to posthumously protect Prince’s trademark through continued maintenance and use. If properly protected and used, those trademark rights can endure forever. For an artist like Prince, who had his rights to his own name yanked away during his life, trademark law poignantly allows his heirs to protect and control his name and his legacy indefinitely. Second only to “Purple Rain,” the pending trademark registration may be Prince’s longest-lasting legacy.
Lisa Greenwald-Swire is a Trademark and Copyright Principal in the Silicon Valley office of Fish & Richardson. Her practice focuses on global trademark counseling and prosecution including brand strategy, strategic portfolio development, licensing, and trademark rights on the...