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Let’s Litigate Like It’s 1999

by Paul Rapp on February 6, 2014


Prince continued his purple reign of terror against his fans last week when he hauled off and sued 20-plus people, most of whom were identified only by their online handles, for posting links to places Prince bootlegs were available for download. Never mind that courts have consistently found that merely linking to possibly infringing sites isn’t infringement, or that the $1 million-per-defendant claim was laughable, or that identifying most of the defendants would be impossible. After a day or two of now-predictable online outrage and derision, the lawsuit was dropped, with Prince people saying something about how all the “stealing” had stopped so they were done. Um, right.

Folks were quick to point out that this was merely the latest in a long history of online dickishness by the diminutive Violet Valet, many citing the 1999 case of Prince v. Uptown. Which calls for a little walk down memory lane. . . .

In early 1999, I got a call from Doug at the League of Arts that a fax (we used faxes back then) had just come in from a guy in Boston looking for help with a lawsuit involving Prince. Turns out it was a second-year lawyer named Alex Hahn, who was a big Prince fan (and who would go on to write the excellent bio Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince), who had been a member of the great Boston band the Volcano Suns, and who’d been contacted by a Swedish online Prince fanzine called Uptown. Uptown had just been sued by Prince, or rather, by Prince Rogers Nelson, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

Alex sent me the complaint. It was one of the most disgusting legal documents I’d ever seen. Prince accused Uptown not only of posting some links to illegal downloads (like it mattered: This was 1999, pre-Napster, pre-iTunes, pre-iPod), but also of posting “unauthorized” photos of Prince, thereby somehow profiting from Prince’s likeness. Even worse, Prince (who was referred to as “The Artist”) had registered copyrights and trademarks for that silly little can-opener-like icon he’d been using as his “name,” and he was suing Uptown for infringement for using it while referring to him in articles. In other words, he was suing Uptown for talking about him.

Nineteen ninety-nine was gold-rush time online. People were more interested that dentalfloss.com got $100 million of second-round funding than they were about IP bullying. I’d been doing a lot of work with RtMark, a pre-Yesmen anti-bullying group, so I kind of knew the territory. And I’d done just enough litigation in my 10-year career to make me an extreme danger to everyone else involved, whether client, foe, witness, and court. I was fearless for no better reason than I was a well-meaning idiot with an attitude. I had to help with this case.

We researched the bejesus out of it. We learned that Prince’s people had given a floppy-disk (remember them?) containing “the unpronounceable symbol” to Uptown with a request that the symbol be used in referring to Prince. We learned that the symbol bore an uncanny resemblance to an Egyptian hieroglyph meaning “sandstone.” We learned that Prince’s people had recently asked Uptown to become part of some grand online world of which Prince would be the grand lavender overlord. And we confirmed what we already knew, that Prince’s claims were, legally speaking, a steaming pile of shit.

Alex, by far the better writer, wrote our answer to the complaint. Now, pleadings are supposed to be short and concise statements of a litigant’s position. Alex wrote a freakin’ book! It was brilliant—we needed to get our story out big and fast, and at the time there wasn’t nearly the ability to “go viral” that there is now. So Alex told the whole sordid tale in Uptown’s answer, and we circulated it where we could. I knew a wire service entertainment reporter, David Bauder, who used to work at the Times Union, and we made sure he got one. In the answer we asked for, among other things, the cancellation of Prince’s copyrights and trademarks in the unpronounceable symbol, and for damages for subjecting Uptown to a frivolous and vexatious lawsuit.

The day after we filed the answer, Bauder posted an article about how Prince had called him up and announced he was rerecording all 16 of his Warners records and releasing them on his own label.  Bauder, who has based much of his career on fawning celebrity puff pieces, dutifully reported this nonsense, and mentioned that Uptown had filed its answer in the closing paragraph. Which got chopped most places the story ran.

Time for Plan B! We immediately noticed Prince’s video deposition, in the old federal courthouse in Brooklyn, where people could, pre-9/11, saunter in and out. Prince’s lawyers vociferously opposed this, saying Uptown just wanted to “exploit” Prince’s image some more. Now, there had just been a rather well-publicized video deposition of our president saying things like “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is” and “I did not have sex with that woman.” The court ruled the video deposition would go on. You know, what’s good for The Prez is good for The Artist.

The lawsuit settled within days. Uptown continued publishing “unauthorized” articles and pictures of Prince for another 10 years.