Prince’s Last Words: “Stop Stealing My Music”

Prince was a tireless and tenacious crusader against exploitation by record labels, streaming services, ISPs, and Google.  But is Prince’s war now dead?

Just hours after Prince’s death, Google constructed a massive, search-driven homage to the pop superstar.  In the same way that Google celebrates creators like Tesla and crusaders like Harriet Tubman, the search giant neatly assembled everything Prince, including links to his music, information about the singer’s life, and images of the superstar, all with a perfectly-purple backdrop.

It was an ironic monument, reminiscent of a band of pioneers naming their town after the Indian chief they just scalped.  Google, after all, was the focus of a massive legal war by Prince, based on their refusal to systematically remove his content.  Even now, top searches on Google lead of all manner of illegal Prince content, including unauthorized Russian mp3 sites, links to entire torrent discographies, and endless images with suspect rights.

If Prince was still alive, Google’s victory lap would have been viewed as a vulgar, low gesture.  In fact, it’s likely that the artist would have spoken out against it.  The reason is that Prince felt that Google was massively exploitative towards artists and their music, and worse, used that exploitation to drive up billions in value at the expense of creators.  Back in 2007, the pop icon announced legal action against YouTube, based on their systematic abuse of the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Act, or DMCA, which makes it nearly impossible to remove free, illegal pirated content.

Google (and YouTube) have always fired back that it’s impossible to police copyrights on their massive sites.  But that sounds like malarky to content owners and activist artists like Prince, especially since YouTube does a perfect job of removing things they don’t like, including pornography.  And, really, really bad stuff like child pornography, which never requires a complicated DMCA takedown process to remove.

So, if that bad stuff is so easily removed, why can’t Google figure out how to remove Purple Rain?  “YouTube is clearly able to filter porn and pedophile material but appear to choose not to filter out the unauthorized music and film content which is core to their business success,” Prince’s legal team questioned at the time.

“Prince strongly believes artists as the creators and owners of their music need to reclaim their art.”

YouTube offered a typically condescending response, one that has somehow mollified artists, labels, and publishers for more than a decade.  “Most content owners understand that we respect copyrights, we work every day to help them manage their content, and we are developing state-of-the-art tools to let them do that even better,” YouTube chief counsel Zahavah Levine snapped back.

But is YouTube demonstrating respect, or horrible exploitation?  The pop legend quickly fired back, asking how all these ‘state-of-the-art’ tools over at YouTube and Google couldn’t figure out how to simply block clearly-infringing uploaders and links to obviously-pirating sites.  “The problem is that one can reduce it to zero and then the next day there will be 100 or 500 or whatever,” Prince offered, referring to a statute of the DMCA only requires Google to tear down infringing content, not patrol its re-upload.

That means that millions of takedowns are effectively useless, given that millions of tracks are typically re-uploaded the next day. “This carries on ad nauseam at Prince’s expense,” the artist continued.

Regardless, Prince waged war on YouTube to scrub the network of his content, which is one of the reasons why Prince’s material is very difficult to find on the platform today.  Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest legal fights on YouTube involved a Prince song, ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ which was playing in a background of a dancing baby video.  The mother of that baby, Stephanie Lenz, fought back on grounds of fair use after the video was ripped down, with Google-powered legal army Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) litigating to keep the video alive.  In the end, the ‘Lenz Case’ served as a precedent in content fair use, with Prince and Universal Music Group declared the loser.

“Prince has suffered and is continuing to suffer damages…”

But Prince’s war to protect his music went far beyond Google’s borders.  In early 2014, Prince sued 22 Facebook users (many die-hard fans) for uploading live clips of his concerts, with penalties soaring past the $22 million mark.  “Prince has suffered and is continuing to suffer damages in an amount according to proof, but no less than $1 million per Defendant,” the lawsuit read.

Prince also attempted to target the source: pirate sites themselves, most of whom are profiting handsomely off of advertising.  In 2007, Prince filed against the Pirate Bay, the slippery torrent site that still stands despite dozens of legal attacks and raids.

The war against theft also spread beyond music, and into areas like photography, merchandise, and memorabilia.  In 2007, Prince’s team managed to remove more than 300 eBay auctions involving Prince-inspired mugs, keychains, socks, and other mementos that were created without Prince’s permission.  Even Twitter got caught in the crossfire for allowing Prince-inspired Vines, part of a multi-theater battle that kept a lot of lawyers busy (and removed a lot of content).

The question is whether any of this moved the needle.  Streaming services and online content creators tread carefully around Prince’s content, and other superstars have followed suit, in varying degrees.  Taylor Swift sued Etsy creators for misappropriating her image on homemade items, and Kanye West recently threatened a laughable lawsuit against the Pirate Bay.  Prince boycotted Spotify, and Swift, Adele, and even Kanye have imitated that approach.

But despite those stances, Prince seems to have lost his war against content devaluation and outright theft.  Even Google has tactfully battled back against accusations of theft and devaluation, by offering hard numbers and hoisting the rare YouTube superstars as examples of its contributions.  In fact, YouTube not only argues that the devaluation of music is theoretically impossible, but that YouTube is revaluing music if it is.

In that light, Google’s splashy, purple-themed memorial to Prince is more of a celebration of Google’s victory over a combative, difficult artist than a celebration of any legacy.  In fact, the Artist probably would have asked his lawyers to rip it down.


(Image by Teo JPG, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)).

19 Responses

  1. Yep

    “YouTube is clearly able to filter porn and pedophile material but appear to choose not to filter out the unauthorized music and film content which is core to their business success”
    THIS. 100% .
    And the algorithms needed for image recognition of naked parts of bodies are far, far more complex than those needed to recognize a sound imprint ( see the success of Shazam ). Yet , the system is capable of removing porn videos in mere seconds after they’ve been uploaded. This has been tested.
    So there is clearly no technological excuse, other than they are amply profiteering from the presence of illegaly uploaded music ( and film ) content material.

    • Antinet

      I wish a group of media attorneys would spearhead a huge class action case against Google over this. Google has clearly shown intent to break the law. This makes the case inevitable.

      • Julie C Myers

        Yes… you’ve got it. I know a LOT of people who would join that fight…

      • THE DUDE

        This is a great idea, but lets be realistic. It’ll never happen. They’re “Google.” There’s a reason why it hasn’t happen. Follow the money.

    • Anonymous

      “Source on those last words?”

      Don’t take everything literally. I think Paul meant that this is what we’ll remember him for. And he’s right, you know.

      There are lots of unique artists out there, but only one who really took a stand against pirates and abusive services like YouTube.

  2. Anonymous

    “with Prince and Universal Music Group declared the loser”

    The court did not decide that the video was fair use — which it obviously wasn’t.

    It decided that content owners must consider fair use before sending takedowns, which Universal faled to do.

    So Universal lost because of a technicality, unrelated to the specific pirated video itself.

  3. pschase

    Nothing last forever. Maybe there is something to a post-internet world, where we use the tech as a choice, not as a media one stop manipulated by the major players.

  4. Anonymous

    Nothing will change as long as Google owns the politicians.

  5. Versus

    If all the big players – artists, labels, publishers, etc. – made a concerted effort instead of letting Prince and a few others fight the good fight alone, then a change would come.

    Clearly the problem is not technical, as Prince’s legal arguments rightly show. It is lack of will, because GoogleTube is profiteering based on the stealing of the hard work of musicians and other creators.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      There’s a herding cats problem. For starters, many artists disagree with Prince, there are as many opinions on these matter as there are chords to play.

  6. FarePlay

    Will Prince finally ignite the story that’s been held prisoner for so long?

    In many cases the internet has destroyed an artists ability to earn a living from their work. Not only has the internet provided an open highway for thieves, it has provided an open forum for marauding bands of cyber terrorists whose goal is to silence those who would be speak out in defense of the value of their work.

    It happened, again, just a few weeks ago on March 31, when a group called “Fight for the Future” attempted to disrupt a call for comments from the Copyright Office. A frantic plea from some over amped, anonymous individual using misinformation and half truths to ‘inspire’ his fellow free loaders to flood the copyright offices’ website with thousands of the same comment. Comments that favor keeping creators powerless over what happens to their work and who has the right to use and abuse it.

    Today’s headlines are filled with other stories about the uprising of artists in opposition to Youtube and those who short change artists when it comes to paying them for their music.

    Perhaps today is the day to show your support. We can certainly use it.

  7. anon

    Not even the hubris of one of the greatest entertainers in history is any match for the dysfunctional value spectrum of mainstream culture, especially with regard to the
    issue of people’s presumptive entitlement. The fallout from the era of free downloads is ongoing, and even now, many of Prince’s non-sanctioned videos have found their way back to public viewing. It cannot be overstated that the issue goes back to the valuation of the industry as a whole within society. The lesson still stands that just because technology makes ease of accessibility possible doesn’t make it right.

  8. Spike & Roxy

    Thanks, this article explains why it was always so hard to find the video for Batdance!