By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The late pop star Prince was known in life as an artist fiercely protective of his intellectual property, but how much others may profit from his legacy, including a large body of unreleased songs, hinges on how astute he was in arranging for control of his music after death.
Prince, 57, who died on Thursday at his home and studio compound in Minnesota, is one of relatively few recording artists, even of his stature, believed to have possessed ownership of his master recordings and his own music publishing.
"Ownership of his catalog will follow his estate," veteran Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer Jay Cooper said on Thursday. "Ownership of the masters will go to whoever inherits it from his estate."
At stake are potential retail sales, licensing fees and royalties on music from more than 30 albums that have sold over 36 million copies in the United State alone since 1978, plus an extensive cache of unheard recordings said to be locked away in a vault.
The collection is believed to include an entire album he recorded with jazz trumpet great Miles Davis, said Owen Husney, who was Prince's first manager and teaches music business at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Husney said he would put the overall value of Prince's existing catalog at well over $500 million. That estimate factors in not just the potential for retail music sales but for rights to film, television, commercials and video games - which Prince in his lifetime rarely if ever licensed, Husney said.
The key unanswered question about the fate of Prince's intellectual property is whether the performer had a valid will or estate plan in place at the time of his death, lawyers said.
Twice divorced with no surviving children, he apparently lacked any immediately identifiable heirs, though Husney noted Prince had a sister, Tyka Nelson. His parents are both deceased.
"Hopefully, Prince executed a trust, and indicated his intentions both with respect to who his trustee would be and how he would want the estate to be disposed of," said celebrity probate attorney Dan Streisand, who has represented the estates of Marlon Brando, Barry White and Rodney Dangerfield.
CONTROL FROM THE GRAVE
Through instructions in a will to a trustee, the artist could posthumously restrict the granting of commercial licenses to his music, and thus, in effect, maintain control over his songs from the grave, lawyers said.
"In my experience, with a lot of musicians and performers, who knows if he executed a trust or a will," Streisand said. "Prince was an incredibly smart person, he had great legal representation ... so I would suspect that somebody along the way said, 'Look, we've got to get you to execute some documents.'"
Absent a will, inheritance would be determined by a probate court, subject to the laws of succession in Prince's home state of Minnesota.
Prince was almost as well known for an unyielding defense of his artistic rights as he was for his music.
So assertive was he in maintaining creative control that during a bitter contract battle with Warner Bros. in the 1990s, he famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled the word "slave" on his forehead in performances.
The dispute centered at least in part on Prince's desire to release his music more frequently than the label was willing.
Prince ultimately made peace with Warner, reaching a deal in 2014 to regain ownership of his master recordings in return for allowing the label to digitally remaster and reissue his back catalog, according to trade publication Variety and other media accounts.
The artist had been similarly unstinting in limiting the use of his material on YouTube and digital music streaming platforms such as Spotify and Rhapsody, although he made his catalog available on the artist-owned, premium subscription streaming service Tidal, launched by rapper Jay Z.
Still, news of his death sparked an immediate bump in online sales of his music, with nine of the top 10-selling albums on iTunes belonging to Prince on Thursday. Eight of the top-selling singles on iTunes were Prince tracks, led by "Purple Rain."
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Ross Rollo in Los Angeles; and Zachary Goelman and Franklin Paul in New York)