A 'Sign O' the Times': Internet copyright law, digital context and Prince


Bruno Mars performs in a tribute to Prince during the 59th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Robert Gauthier and Robert Gauthier

The 59th Annual Grammy Awards aired Sunday. Maybe you saw them. If you didn’t, Adele swept, Beyoncé got snubbed, and Chance the Rapper thanked God but not corporate America in his speech.

Something else massive happened that day in the music world, and it’s infinitely more significant than the airing of an award show that, as far as I can tell, exists solely to trot out Little Big Town once a year.

Prince’s Warner Bros. catalog was made available on all major streaming platforms. This is a step in the right direction but isn’t quite enough, much like the Grammys’ nod to Chance but ultimate reluctance to award Adele any fewer than five awards.

While you can stream Prince’s music right now on Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon — and you should — you can’t watch his vast vault of music videos just yet, at least not legally. You can find a few here and there. The 1984 film “Purple Rain” is on YouTube right now and can be seen for $2.99. A bootleg of “When Doves Cry” lives on Vimeo. Live performances owned by various venues and corporations exist across the web, but you can’t watch the entire trove of music videos in any single location. Draconic copyright law has seen unofficial uploads removed, and Prince’s estate has yet to drop the videography.

Confession: I haven’t actually seen a single music video by Prince. I’m talking about his videos as if I have, but I’m really only parroting back what I’ve absorbed from reading about them.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only obsessive music fan who trolls the blogs, reviews, aggregators and NPR to explore my favorite hobby, and I’ll admit that those sources have been indispensable in guiding me to some of my favorite bands. However, while these sites are valuable guideposts, they can’t replace experiencing the actual art. Unfortunately, in the case of Prince’s videography, these media sources are currently the only option.

Prince’s music videos were often intricate works of art every bit as iconic as those of Michael Jackson or Madonna. His 1984 film, “Purple Rain,” isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s an amusingly overwrought and incredibly fun spectacle. While not technically a Prince video, the “Chappelle Show” sketch involving Charlie Murphy, the Artist and a surreal breakfast should be required viewing.

Prince was one of the most visually oriented artists of his generation, so to engage with his art only through music without the spectacle of official live performances, music videos or any of his films, is to miss out on a huge facet of the Purple One. That absence of Prince’s videography isn’t just strange and disappointing, it’s also emblematic of a larger problem in today’s digital music environment.

Prince always wanted absolute control of his catalogue. He was one of the only artists ever to own all of his own master tapes. Prince hired UK anti-piracy company Web Sheriff in 2007 to keep his material off of the internet entirely. But in removing massive parts of his music and video output, he arguably lost more control of his music than he would have had he just left it all up.

If Prince’s goal was to make sure people only ever approached his music on his own terms, he failed. His work didn’t speak for itself because it couldn’t speak for itself. After Prince’s death, there was a glut of articles telling us what Prince’s best visual work was, but because none of it could be reasonably accessed digitally, our opinion of it was mediated by a handful of bloggers who I imagine all live in Brooklyn, make their own artisan salsa and probably listen exclusively to Animal Collective b-sides. This probably wasn’t what Prince wanted.

At last we can hear Prince’s best music — 1980’s “Dirty Mind” up through 1987’s “Sign o’ the Times” — without owning a record or CD player, but we still can’t watch his music videos.

What else is a music geek supposed to watch now? The Grammys?

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