From explicit lyrics that scandalized Tipper Gore in 1984 to lawsuits against YouTube & The Pirate Bay in 2007, Prince Rogers Nelson has never been afraid of controversy. Last week the genre-defying musician proved once again that he hasn’t run out of ways to shock us: he signed a new deal with Warner Brothers Records.
Yep, that’s the same major record label that The Purple One had memorably battled beginning in 1993 and the reason he wrote the word “SLAVE” on his cheek in public appearances and changed his name to an unpronounceable dingbat:
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…
Given this history of conflict, it’s fairly stunning to see Prince partner up again with his old nemesis after an eighteen-year period of emancipation. It conjures up scenarios where perhaps young executives were brought in to replace retiring old-school music-biz heavies, and suddenly realized, “We own the Prince back catalog? What’s up with that? What does he want? What on earth are we doing at Warner Brothers if we’re mistreating Prince? Let’s make this right!”
Romantic as that notion might be, it’s more likely that Prince is simply taking advantage of an important provision in copyright law that allows creators to terminate transfers of their copyrighted works to third parties (like record labels) and reclaim control of their exclusive rights. As Billboard and others have pointed out, the deal is timed to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Prince’s 1978 debut. The ability to reclaim one’s masters after 35 years was granted in the Copyright Act of 1976, and went into effect in 1978.
For artists and songwriters (or their surviving heirs) interested in reclaiming their rights, we’ve created a detailed factsheet spelling out how the process works. Termination of transfer is a complicated endeavor, and there is a limited window of time during which creators must give notice of their intent to terminate.
Ultimately, when rights revert to the artist, it means the balance of power has shifted, leaving artists with a number of options. They can negotiate a licensing & distribution deal with the same label they’ve been working with for years, as Prince has, or they can walk away and reissue their albums themselves. Labels thus have a strong incentive to give the artists what they want or risk never making another dime from their catalog; a similar dynamic exists for songwriters renegotiating publishing deals. (You could also speculate that it might be significant that Warner Bros is now headed by Cameron Strang, formerly of indie label New West Records, home to a number of major label refugees; he’s got some experience working with artists unhappy with previous deals.)
Of course, major labels have attempted a number of shenanigans to attempt to prevent termination of transfer, such as getting Congress to reclassify sound recordings as “works for hire,” meaning the rights would never be able to return to the artists. And now there are suggestions that early leaked drafts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial international trade agreement may have contained provisions which could make termination impossible. It’s hard to actually know what’s in the current draft because of the lack of transparency around these negotations, but it will be important to stay vigilant against any attempts to restrict termination rights.
From the outside, it looks like Prince’s new deal seems like the best possible result: the artist is happy, and the fans are thrilled about the potential release of bonus material that’s reportedly been languishing in Warner’s vaults. Of course, an artist like Prince whose fanbase remains large and loyal and whose back catalog is packed full of hits is going to have far more leverage in renegotiating his new deal than most musicians and songwriters. More of these deals are likely to be just around the corner; we’ll be watching closely.