Owners of Prince’s copyrights sue Roc Nation, owned by Jay Z

“Prince at Coachella” by penner. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

On November 15th, Minneapolis-St. Paul area news outlet StarTribune published a report that the entities owning the copyrights to music created by the late pop star Prince had filed suit against Roc Nation, the entertainment company owned by rapper Jay Z, which is affiliated with the streaming music service Tidal. Plaintiffs NPG Records and NPG Music Publishing allege that Tidal and Roc Nation have engaged in copyright infringement by adding a series of 15 unauthorized Prince albums to the Tidal catalog this June. The case is filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota (D. Minn.).

In the complaint filed by NPG Records, the plaintiffs allege that they entered into an agreement with WiMP Music, Tidal’s sister streaming service, for an exclusive license to stream “the next newly recorded studio LP by the recording artist known as ‘Prince.’” That next new album was Hit n Run Phase 1, released by Tidal in September 2015 one week before the CD album hit stores. NPG Records charges that the additional Prince recordings were never licensed for streaming on Tidal.

The federal court case actually arises out of a state probate case involving the Prince estate. In both October and November of this year, Roc Nation filed a letter and attachments in Carver County District Court claiming that Roc Nation had oral and written agreements from relevant parties to stream the Prince records. None of the documentation provided by Roc Nation included any substantiated proof of such an agreement, according to NPG’s complaint. The suit includes one count for copyright infringement of multiple works and the prayer for relief seeks a court order for Tidal to stop streaming the infringing works and for Roc Nation to pay actual damages of either Roc Nation’s profits and plaintiffs’ damages or statutory damages allowable under Title 17 U.S.C. § 505 regarding the willful infringement of copyright.

This case is interesting given Prince’s storied history with his own music recording and publishing contracts. Prince’s famous 1993 decision to change his name as a performer into an unrecognizable symbol was done mainly to get around restrictions in music publishing which were mandated by Warner Bros., the record label representing Prince at that time. Prince wanted to publish more music and Warner Bros. was concerned about diluting the market and reduced consumer demand. Warner Bros. owned the rights to Prince’s music, but marketing himself as a symbol allowed Prince to produce music recordings through an independent label without violating his contract.

The lawsuit also follows on the heels of a recent announcement that Universal Music Publishing Group is now the exclusive worldwide publishing administrator for Prince’s entire catalog. From a rights management point-of-view, this could have given NPG Records extra motivation for trying to clean up Tidal’s act now.


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