August 21, 2014

'90's Flashback: Prince's Trademark Cautionary Tale

by Guest Blogger

I have a 8-week old daughter, and she's generally in good spirits. Like most newborns, however, she usually comes down with a case of the grumps in the evening (i.e., the so-called "witching hour"). This is the second go-round for my wife and I so we're familiar with the usual tricks of the trade (baby swing, white noise machine, pacifier, alcohol for the adults, etc.). Of course, we're always open to new ideas. Recently, we discovered that our little lady loves the Music Choice channels on cable TV.

For the uninitiated, there are dozens of Music Choice channels covering the entire musical spectrum from "Toddler Tunes" to "Classic Rock". While the music plays, the channel displays "Did You Know" trivia about each artist. The trivia runs from the mundane ("Alice In Chains formed in Seattle, WA in 1987") to the obscure ("If The Hives could put together their ultimate fantasy music festival, they'd want Elvis Presley to headline") to the downright weird ("Sugar Ray were originally going to call themselves Chicken Lips").

Recently, while listening to Prince's "Cream" on the '90's channel, the trivia mentioned the contract dispute that led Prince to change his name to the "Love Symbol":

08 21 14 Blog Love Symbol

I remembered the whole flap over the name change, but I forgot that the decision was prompted by legal maneuvering. According to our resident musicology expert, Dr. Wik. I. Pedia, the dispute arose in 1993 between Warner Bros. and Prince over the artistic and financial control of Prince's music. At the time, Prince famously appeared in public with the word "slave" written on his cheek and gave the following statement:

The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. 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. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros...

"The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" wasted no time seeking federal trademark protection for the Love Symbol. He obtained four federal trademark registrations:

U.S. Reg. No. 1,849,644 for entertainment services;

U.S. Reg. No. 1,871,900 for posters, publications, bumper stickers and stickers;

U.S. Reg. No. 1,860,429 for clothing; and

U.S. Reg. No. 1,822,461 for sound recordings and videotapes featuring music and entertainment.

Prince continued using the Love Symbol moniker until his publishing contract with Warner Bros. expired in 2000. After that, he returned to using "Prince" again. He still uses the symbol as a logo and on album artwork and continues to play a Love Symbol-shaped guitar.

The controversy over Prince's name teaches two important lessons: (1) the failure to protect intellectual property from day one can be a huge disaster for a musician (or anyone for that matter); and (2) you need to be sure that you own all the trademarks you are using (or that you are properly licensed).

In an interesting epilogue to the trademark dispute, Prince recently returned to Warner Bros. As part of the deal, Prince's classic "Purple Rain" album will be re-released. Could a movie re-make be in the works?

The lawyers at Trademarkology provide trademark registration services backed by the experience and service of one of the nation's oldest law firms. Click here to begin the process of protecting your brand name with a federally registered trademark.