By Natalie Cuadros
Source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prince_at_Coachella.jpg
Ever since the tragic passing of musician Prince, the battle over the rights to his catalog of music has been enhanced more than before. Historically, Prince has strictly protected his copyrights and largely opposed the streaming of his music on platforms such as Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube.  He has even gone so far as to issue takedown notices for YouTube clips of him singing live at the Coachella music and threatened legal action against fan-created sites.  This complex relationship between Prince and the internet has paved the way for legal battles from his estate, primarily targeting those who are allegedly exploiting Prince’s music licenses on the internet. 
On November 15, 2016, NPG Records, Inc., the rights holder to Prince’s music catalog, filed suit against Roc Nation LLC (“Roc Nation”) for copyright infringement after the label’s music streaming service, Tidal, streamed multiple Prince albums after his death.  While NPG Records, Inc. (“NPG”) and Prince, himself, did grant Tidal an exclusive license to Prince’s album titled “Hit N Run: Phase 1,” NPG claims that there was no other official agreement to any of Prince’s works.   Roc Nation, however, has a different perspective on this issue. According to NPG, Roc Nation previously filed a letter claiming that Roc Nation had oral and written agreements between the parties which included the grant of exclusive rights to Prince’s entire music catalog.  Notably, NPG pointed out that the petition did not include any documentation of the purported agreements whatsoever.  With this background, NPG demands that the Minnesota District Court enjoin Tidal and Roc Nation as a whole from streaming any works besides “Hit N Run: Phase 1 Album,” statutory damages for willful infringement, and attorneys’ fees. 
Currently, Tidal still has multiple Prince albums available to stream on its platform.  Tidal, which was purchased in 2015 by Jay-Z for $56 million, has suffered setbacks despite the public support of high-profile celebrities such as Rihanna, Madonna, Kanye West, and Beyoncé.  The music streaming service has cycled through three different chief executives and suffered a loss of $28 million in 2015.  Tidal’s reliance on streaming exclusives with top musicians has been a driving force for its success since then, however the music industry may be steering away from this model due to the frustration it creates for users and, as illustrated in Prince’s case, artists.  
Looking forward, the outcome of NPG’s lawsuit against Roc Nation may establish a trend against music streaming exclusives and the apparent lack of control that artists have over the distribution of their music. A similar example of an artist’s struggle with music streaming exclusives is the case of Frank Ocean’s album release under Universal Music Group (“UMG”).  Ocean released a visual album titled “Endless” on Apple Music through UMG, and a day later released a complete album with seventeen songs under his own independent label, Boys Don’t Cry.  In light of Frank Ocean’s latest release, music industry giant UMG has been rumored to have banned exclusives with music streaming services.  Spotify, Inc. does not plan to participate in exclusives, with its head of communications Jonathan Prince stating that “[a]rtists want as many fans as possible to hear their music, and fans want to be able to hear whatever they’re excited about . . . exclusives get in the way of that for both sides.” 
On one hand, fans are directly affected by the inaccessibility of an artist’s music on the Internet. On the other, music creators themselves may suffer from relationships with labels and streaming services, such as not being fully compensated for their work.  A report by the Berklee School of Music has recommendations for this conundrum, including the drafting of a “Creator’s Bill of Rights” and a “fair music” certification for streaming services and labels to obtain.  Furthermore, the report urges streaming services and record labels to substantially increase transparency of revenue to distinguish exactly how much of the revenue artists are owed.  “We believe it’s essential for music creators to reject the false choice between art and finance and instead be empowered with greater control over their revenue streams . . . ” the report states, “[a]rt and commerce can and should coexist without apology in a synergetic fashion in the music industry.”  Artists like Prince and Frank Ocean have certainly begun to pioneer a new landscape for musicians in the Internet context, and transparency from services like Tidal would be a valuable way to reduce the tensions between art and business to create a harmonious environment where creativity can thrive.
- Hasit Shah, Poor Lonely Computer: Prince’s Misunderstood Relationship with The Internet, Nat’l Pub. Radio (March 8, 2016), https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2016/03/08/469627962/poor-lonely-computer-princes-misunderstood-relationship-with-the-internet.
- Chris Mench, Prince’s Estate is Suing Jay Z’s Tidal Streaming Service for Alleged Copyright Infringement, Insider (November 16, 2016), https://www.businessinsider.com/princes-estate-is-suing-tidal-2016-11.
- NPG Records, Inc. v. Roc Nation LLC, No. 0:16-cv-03909 (D. Minn. Filed Nov. 15, 2016).
- Id at 18 – 19.
- Id at 19.
- Id at 33.
- See id (listing Plaintiff’s “Prayer of Relief”).
- Prince Discography, Tidal, https://listen.tidal.com/artist/4847 (last visited: Nov. 20, 2016).
- Neil Shah, Can Rihanna’s New Album ‘Anti’ Give Jay Z’s Struggling Tidal a Shot in the Arm?, The Wall Street J. (Jan. 28, 2016), https://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2016/01/28/rihannas-new-album-can-anti-give-jay-zs-struggling-tidal-a-shot-in-the-arm/.
- Nathan McAlone, Jay Z’s Tidal Music Streaming Service More Than Doubled Its Losses Last Year, Insider (Sept. 13, 2016), https://www.businessinsider.com/tidal-losses-accelerated-in-2015-2016-9.
- Victor Luckerson, How Exclusives Are Hurting Streaming Music, TIME Mag. (July 14, 2016), https://time.com/3955992/streaming-exclusives/.
- Dan Rys, Frank Ocean’s Album is the Straw that Broke Universal Music’s Back (and it May Get Him Sued), Billboard Mag. (August 24, 2016), https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/7487032/frank-ocean-endless-album-straw-broke-universal-music-back-may-get-sued.
- Natalie Robehmed, Frank Ocean Just Went Independent and Ignited a Music Streaming War, Forbes Mag. (Aug. 23, 2016), https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2016/08/23/frank-ocean-just-ignited-a-streaming-war-with-apple-and-universal-music/#28e2dd54571a.
- Micah Singleton, Does Spotify Need to Go After Exclusive Content?, The Verge (Feb. 18, 2016), https://www.theverge.com/2016/2/18/11054460/spotify-exclusive-content-apple-tidal.
- Rethink Music Initiative, Fair Music: Transparency and Payment Flows in the Music Industry, Berklee Inst. for Creative Entrepreneurship 1, 3 (Jul. 3, 2015), https://www.berklee.edu/sites/default/files/Fair%20Music%20-%20Transparency%20and%20Payment%20Flows%20in%20the%20Music%20Industry.pdf.
- Id at 4.
- Id at 5.
- Id at 5 – 6.