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Poor Lonely Computer: Prince’s Misunderstood Relationship With The Internet

Prince on stage in France in 2011.

Some people in the line were not sure what to do with their phones. A man in his mid-50s, who’d traveled all the way from Kansas with his sister, thought it would be fine to keep his hidden away in his pocket. He had no intention of using it, he said. But he’s been diagnosed with cancer and, understandably, was a little anxious about being uncontactable for several hours, so far away from home in the depths of Minnesota.

“You use it, you lose it!” bellowed Paisley Park staff as we waited at a local bus station to receive our wristbands and be transported in coaches to the venue. Holders of VIP tickets ($250) were allowed to park at Paisley. But however much you’d paid for a ticket, one rule was being enforced above all others: no cellphones, no cameras. There were quite a few locals in the friendly, mostly middle-aged crowd, people who’d been to Paisley many times. They were unequivocal. “Don’t bother bringing a phone,” said Sean, who was dressed in a purple suit. “They’ll take it off you.” I locked mine in the rental car, away from temptation. Most others did the same, including the gentleman from Kansas. Prince, armed with just a microphone and a piano, was playing a couple of intimate midweek shows in one night, in his own studio complex just outside Minneapolis.

“From all over the world, the people came,” brags Prince’s last great B-side, before the Internet changed the way we think of singles. The song is called “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Alive (And It Lives In Minneapolis),” and on a cold night in January, both the opening lyric and the title of this 1995 track still seemed to hold true. Given Prince’s notoriously antagonistic relationship with the Internet, it is not a surprise that this song is unavailable to legally stream or download anywhere.

There are probably two main reasons for the cellphone ban at Paisley Park. First is an attempt to preserve the purity of the live music experience, to encourage people to watch and absorb the show rather than their screens. Apart from a woman who used her phone flashlight to look for something she’d dropped, earning a stern word from an alert member of staff, everyone seemed to respect the rules. At one point, while he scrolled through his iPad, deciding what to play next, Prince playfully asked why everyone was looking at him. Later, I could only find a single, blurry image from the show on social media.

The other reason is Prince’s fierce commitment to protection of copyright. He does not take kindly to unauthorized recordings and images. There is surprisingly little to be found in places like YouTube. What does exist is usually unauthorized and only survives for as long as it takes to issue a takedown notice. Which Prince, or whoever he’s paying to handle this task, does with great regularity. There is plenty of Prince material on non-U.S. video sites, which are harder to deal with under American law.

“Copyright law has not caught up with the way the Internet works,” explains Professor Chris Bavitz of Harvard Law School. “The Internet itself is premised on making copies. Every time you load a web page you are making a copy. But technically, according to the U.S. Copyright Act, you are violating the rights of whoever owns the content on that page.”

Bavitz has been immersed in the music industry for many years. Between 2003 and 2008 he was in-house counsel at EMI, at the time one of the four major record labels. Among other things, he now teaches a Music and Digital Media class at Harvard.

Today, relatively few people buy physical copies of music. After its slow initial response to the rise of illegal file-sharing in the 2000s, the industry now supplies music in several ways using the Internet. You can pay to download individual tracks and albums using something like iTunes; you can stream music of your choice by subscribing to a service like Spotify; you can select a genre or artist on Pandora and let the service’s algorithm choose similar songs for you. Artists also have their own channels on audio and video platforms like Soundcloud and YouTube, to which fans can subscribe for free. But Prince has mostly stood apart from these developments.

“The Internet’s completely over,” he said in 2010. “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else.” Since then, Prince has removed most of his music from the streaming service Spotify, instead aligning with the newer, smaller, Jay-Z-backed Tidal. There is some music available on iTunes, but the latest releases appear several weeks earlier on Tidal. There are many Prince songs and albums that are completely unavailable on any of the major digital platforms.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an important civil liberty organization that specifically focuses on digital technology, created The Raspberry Beret Lifetime Aggrievement Award for Prince, in 2013, because of his “extraordinary abuses of the takedown process in the name of silencing speech.” It sees Prince’s takedowns not merely as a copyright issue, in which an artist can claim to be protecting his work, but as outright censorship.

In 2007, Stephanie Lenz posted a 29-second video of her young children dancing in the kitchen. Faintly in the background, the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” is playing. The correct response would probably have been to do nothing, but Universal Music, Prince’s label at the time, decided to issue a takedown. The ensuing legal battle, in which the EFF represents Lenz, is still not quite over after nine long years of decisions and appeals. Though he’s not the plaintiff, the EFF still blames Prince.

The association is understandable. That same year, Prince not only threatened legal action against eBay and YouTube but also against three websites that were run by his fans. He wanted them to remove anything linked to his likeness: photos, album art, even images of Prince-inspired tattoos. A letter from his lawyers asked them to provide “substantive details of the means by which you propose to compensate our clients [Paisley Park Entertainment Group, NPG Records and AEG] for damages.” In response, the fansites formed a coalition, Prince Fans United, to contest the action. Prince then created a one-off website where he uploaded an unflattering song about them, the frankly awesome “PFunk.” In the end, nobody got sued and pretty much everyone loved the track. “With everything that’s going on, we continue to listen to his music,” said Karen Avera from the Housequake fansite, at the time. “We’ll continue to buy his music, because we appreciate his music.” But it was an ugly episode, nonetheless.

Infamously, Prince managed to take down a YouTube clip of himself performing a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” at the Coachella music festival in 2008, despite the band’s lead singer Thom Yorke making it very clear who the song actually belongs to. The law does not provide a great deal of clarity in these cases, unfortunately.

“My guess is that Prince at least claimed to be an owner or co-owner of the rights in this video, even if not the song, thus giving him the right to demand its removal,” says Bavitz. “But, actually parsing out the basis for that claim is a bit messy.” The video was uploaded yet again last year, this time apparently with Prince’s approval. He’s now using Twitter and Instagram again and posted a link to it.