As noted in the previous post, the unexpected death of Prince has generally dominated the news cycle since the news first broke late last week. Because Prince was still a relatively young man (57 years old), and thought to be in generally good health, the news was obviously surprising and evoked strong reactions from friends and fans (and detractors, as well). As a fan, I am disappointed that there will be fewer opportunities to watch Prince in the live arena - an aspect of his entertainment persona that was virtually unparalleled in skill and aplomb, even as he approached his 60th birthday. As a practicing attorney, and general observer of pop culture and the music industry, I am deeply interested in the trails that Prince blazed in defying conventional wisdom on several fronts, despite considerable resistance from the industry writ large and from the business partner he originally joined (Warner Bros.). Because of (and in some cases, despite) his musical genius, the music that Prince wrote became both the backbone of his eventual empire and a threat to his partnership with Warner Bros.
Up until the Internet began to lower the barrier to entry for recording, reproducing, and distributing music, the record companies (a seemingly archaic label held-over from the golden-age or vinyl records) held virtually all the leverage by comparison to unsigned and unknown musicians. A by-product of this imbalance was take-it-or-leave-it recording contracts that assigned the copyrights to the recordings to the company in exchange for money advances to live and record/duplicate/market a full-length album and a few points royalty on the sales of each record.
Prior to the comprehensive revision to the Copyright Act in 1976, it was extremely difficult for a recording artist to recapture the copyright ownership in the master recordings used by the record company to duplicate the work for mass production. Even with the 1976 Act (at 17 U.S.C. sec. 203), the recapture of these copyrights requires the recording artist to wait a considerable period of time (approx. 35 years) to fully recapture the rights through termination of the original assignment of the master recording's copyright. Because the 1976 Act did not become effective until Jan. 1, 1978, the full-effect of this provision of the Copyright Act has not become evident until the last few years (2013). Short of this statutorily enforceable provision, recording companies have had very little motivation or incentive to voluntarily terminate these assigned rights. Save for a persistent artist or two.
(Part 3 will continue this look at Prince and Warner Bros.)