The People Formerly Known as Fans

Faced with a lawsuit from their idol, online Prince worshipers turn the tables on the Artist

But John Sumners, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Merchant & Gould who teaches copyright law at the University of Minnesota, says Prince's legal claim seems dicey. Trademark law does allow artists to stop others from using their image solely for commercial purposes, he notes, but it is difficult to distinguish between commercial ventures and First Amendment-protected news coverage. Most media outlets, Sumners adds, are commercial entities, and that does not prevent them from commenting on celebrities. "It would be pretty extreme if Prince were able to shut down this magazine and control the press," Sumners says. "In my guess, he won't be able to."

If Prince does succeed in shutting down the fan sites, argues one music-industry veteran, the pocketbook he really hurts could be his own. Ron Herbert, an Atlanta-based record promoter who has worked with Mariah Carey, Tom Petty, R.E.M., and Prince, says the move seems odd for an artist whose record sales have been declining since the late 1980s. Die-hard fans, says Herbert, have been essential to the long-term success of artists like Jimmy Buffett and the Grateful Dead: Without devoted followers, he says, "first your touring dries up, which causes your record sales to dry up--then you're the VH1 story of the week.

"I would be advising Prince not to sue [his own fans]," Herbert adds. "But Prince is one of the smartest guys I know, and he has the best people working for him. There just has to be more to the story than what you and I know."

Todd Starks

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Diana Dawkins has an inkling as to what the rest of the story might be. The Massachusetts-based business consultant began publishing a biweekly newsletter called The Prince Family after losing her job at the official Prince magazine, Controversy, when the publication shut down in 1992. Two years later, Dawkins says, NPG Records management asked her to help coordinate a new effort that would bring fanzines and Web sites under the umbrella of a Prince-led venture. She declined, saying she preferred to remain independent. But other zine publishers took up the Artist's invitation, and in 1997 Prince launched love4oneanother.com--a compilation of fan sites overseen by a group of coordinators referred to as "The Collective." In an interview posted on the site, Prince explained: "My own personal objectives [for the site] change daily... that is y eye defer 2 the people at Paisley Park that eye love and respect the most. 4 me the initial objective was 2 have a visible place 4 my thoughts."

Dawkins, however, says she suspects that the Artist's true goal was to control his fans. "If he sees his picture in print, he wants to know that he gave permission for that," says Dawkins, who considers the recent lawsuits part of a plan to eliminate competition to love4oneanother.com. "It's a sickness. Prince is always talking about love and charity and peace, but if you follow it to the end, his words usually turn out to have the opposite effect." Although Dawkins is not a defendant in the recent lawsuits, she says she quit publishing her newsletter after hearing about the case; she is currently auctioning off her entire Prince collection through her Web site (members.aol.com/princefam/index.html).

Najarian, the Prince spokeswoman, rejects Dawkins's theory. "That's been one of the main lies that has been perpetuated," she says. "There were only good intentions behind the formation of love4oneanother. It was sort of like, 'Hey, all you people doing fan Web sites out there, let's dedicate ourselves to the truth."

For the time being, UPTOWN's lawyers say they would like to pursue the truth through the courts. In April the zine countersued Prince, claiming that his suit is an attempt at "eliminating economic competition [and] securing a monopoly for the love4oneanother Web site... and stifling free expression" through a "malicious abuse of process." The attorneys have also filed a motion demanding that the Artist appear for a deposition in New York on June 25. Traci Bransford, the Paisley Park Enterprises corporate lawyer, says Prince is fighting the motion and is confident he won't have to make his case under oath. But Hahn argues that recent precedent suggests otherwise: "If the president of the United States can be deposed," he offers, "then so can Prince."

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