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IP Law Insight: Prince’s Trade Mark Controversy

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It’s somewhat fitting that Prince’s breakthrough hit was entitled ‘Controversy’. It’s ironic, however, that in that song Prince (whose name was actually Prince Rogers Nelson) says “I wish there were no rules”, because he spent much of his life fighting to enforce his intellectual property rights (or at least what he perceived were his legal rights).

Prince, the Name and the Love Symbol

In 1992/3 Prince embarked on a campaign to regain the rights to his name which appear to have been assigned to Warner Bros when he was 19 years old. He is reported to have said at the time, 

Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince….”

In protest, Prince began representing himself with a symbol which became known as “the Love Symbol”. He also performed with the word slave written on his cheek. The media then started referring to him as “the artist formerly known as Prince”. In 2000 when his agreement with Warner Bros. expired, Prince was able to release music under his original name, although by that time the Love Symbol had become synonymous with the Prince brand and so he trade marked it in 2003.

Control Over Artistic Works

What is interesting is that when the digital revolution took off, and fans began uploading photos, music and videos of him online – he took legal action against them. In 2008, music website Stereogum reported that Prince was behind the removal of YouTube footage of his cover of Radiohead’s song ‘Creep’ which he had performed at Coachella that year. If true, it’s again ironic that he would try to enforce legal rights over his performance of another band’s song.

It seems that for Prince the experience of being deprived of the right to control the use of his artistic works (and name), albeit for apparent contractual reasons, sparked a drive within him to exercise maximal (perhaps excessive) control later in life.  

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Rüfüs/Rüfüs du Sol Trade Mark

When Alexis Petridis, The Guardian’s chief rock and pop critic, met with Prince at his studio complex Paisley Park in late 2015, he played covers of songs by Chaka Khan to the members of the press in attendance. Khan had a band in the 1970s called Rufus. In January 2014, Roger Ma of the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian band Rüfüs had been forced to change its name in the US to Rüfüs du Sol. He assumed that Chaka Khan’s band name might have been the reason.

Perhaps if the boys from Rüfüs had done international trade mark searches before blooming into international indie dance music darlings, they would have settled on a different band name. It just goes to show that in the music business, intellectual property is still the source of controversy. Rüfüs/Rüfüs du Sol most eloquently captured the key takeaway from all of this when they posted to their Facebook page on 28 January 2014, “we’re going to be known as RÜFÜS DU SOL in North America only…because trade mark is a serious b****.” 


For further information on the how and why you should register a trade mark, check out our articles here, here, here and here. If you have any questions in the meantime about protecting your intellectual property, ask our IP lawyers on 1300 544 755. 

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