Prince: The artist who formerly liked the Internet

Once considered a pioneer in online music distribution, the musician has since turned testy about fan sites and file-sharing networks. What happened?

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
5 min read
Pop music star Prince was long considered an Internet innovator and a friend to the culture of free file sharing.

He was among the first major recording artists to sell music online. This summer, Prince distributed more than 2 million free copies of his album Planet Earth as part of a newspaper promotion in the United Kingdom. Last year, he was honored with a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for his "visionary use of the Internet to distribute music."

Prince was a pioneer in his efforts to give away music in order to promote concerts and merchandise. Long after he gave online distribution a shot, bands like Radiohead have, as recently as last month, made headlines with a similar plan.

But Prince, one of America's most successful recording artists for three decades, seems to have had a dramatic change of heart. Within the next few days, he is expected to cap an aggressive two-month legal campaign to protect his copyright by suing The Pirate Bay, a popular BitTorrent tracking site best known for helping people find unauthorized copies of music and movies. As reported Friday by CNET News.com, Prince plans to sue The Pirate Bay in three countries for encouraging copyright violations--the United States, France, and Sweden, where the Pirate Bay is based.

"Do a Google search on Lars Ulrich. Look at all of the millions of negative things they wrote about him. It's all right. We're used to it."
--Rick Carnes, president, Songwriters Guild of America

In a matter of months, Prince has achieved the unenviable distinction of being the musician with the most combative stance against file-sharing networks since Lars Ulrich, drummer for heavy-metal band Metallica, waved a list of 335,000 Napster screen names outside that company's Silicon Valley office in 2000.

But determining exactly why Prince decided to get tough with Internet piracy isn't easy. A representative for the musician said he wasn't available to discuss his views. In fact, he very rarely gives interviews. But the people helping his case say Prince has to take a stand, as unpopular as it may be.

"Prince is obliged to come up with the plan because no one else has done anything about this blatant piracy," said John Giacobbi, president of Web Sheriff, the antipiracy firm Prince hired to coordinate his copyright fights. "These guys are operating a huge piracy operation, but Prince means business. The Pirate Bay has had the ballpark to themselves for far too long."

Frustrated artists, cranky fans
File sharers who are now cursing Prince should remember that for nearly 10 years he has tried to solve a problem that has stumped the beleaguered record industry: how can you make money from digital music?

Prince was the first major artist to distribute an album exclusively online, though he later decided to release the record on disc. He continued releasing music over the Web after leaving his record label, Warner Bros., in the mid-1990s. It was only last summer, after giving away millions of albums for free, that a spokesman told The New York Times that "Prince's only aim is to get music direct to those that want to hear it."

Some believe Prince was disappointed by his online experiments. Whatever revenue he generated from Web sales doesn't appear to have been enough to prevent him from going to the record labels for help distributing his music on CD. Sony was due to release Planet Earth in the United Kingdom this year but backed out when Prince inked a deal with Britain's Sunday Mail to include a copy of the album with every newspaper circulated on July 15. The promotion also angered the country's music retailers.

Online distribution arrangements developed by other musicians have yielded mixed results as well. Last month, the British band Radiohead told fans to download its album In Rainbows and pay whatever they wanted. ComScore, an Internet tracking service, reported last week that it estimated only 38 percent of those who downloaded paid anything at all. Radiohead's representatives responded on Friday by saying ComScore's data was "wholly inaccurate." Accurate or not, it wasn't the first--and not likely the last--novel music distribution idea that has disappointed.

Perhaps Prince decided the time for experimentation was over. In September, he announced he was planning to sue YouTube, The Pirate Bay, and eBay for allegedly encouraging people to violate copyright. Since then he has sent cease-and-desist orders to YouTube and unauthorized fan sites. Each order requested removal of copyright content he claimed to own.

Other moves by the longtime musician have drawn hostile responses from fans. Critics ripped Prince after his handlers sent a take-down notice to a Pennsylvania woman who had posted a video clip of her baby dancing to a few seconds of the Prince rocker "Let's Go Crazy." The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on civil liberties issues on the Internet, filed a suit on behalf of the woman, alleging that Prince had violated the woman's free speech because her use of his song was protected under fair-use provisions of copyright law.

Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, said Prince should expect to take some public-relations hits. After all, a headline about him suing the mother alongside a photo of a baby boy bopping to a snippet of Prince's music just isn't going to play well. But Carnes argues this is another example of how file sharers persecute the victim. If Prince is mistakenly chasing mothers and their home movies, Carnes points out, it's likely an unfortunate mistake brought about by his attempts to protect his music from more lethal threats.

A great deal of Prince's material is indeed being exchanged online. A check of The Pirate Bay on Monday turned up links to unauthorized versions of Prince's 1984 hit film Purple Rain, several concert performances, and multiple albums. Prince has to stick to his guns no matter what is written about him, declares Carnes.

"Of course there is a risk to Prince," Carnes said. "Prince is going to be completely destroyed on the Internet by the system that they got in place to dismantle artists who speak up for their rights. Do a Google search on Lars Ulrich. Look at all of the millions of negative things they wrote about him. It's all right. We're used to it."