Prince filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit against a Seattle Webmaster on Thursday, claiming that his site had posted downloads to unauthorized songs. The Webmaster denies this claim.
"All I did was link directly to songs [on another, unrelated Web site]," Matthew Lankford said. "And I've been unemployed for the last year. I live in a studio apartment in downtown Seattle. They're basically suing me for my Top Ramen money."
Thirty-three-year-old Lankford, who runs the Me'shell Ndegeocello fan site FreeMyHeart.com, said that he linked to upwards of 50 recordings from another Web site which were taken from Prince's Xenophobia live concert performances this past June. Since Prince is seeking damages of $150,000 per song, that could total up to $7.5 million.
However, Prince's lawyer said that it wasn't just links that irked the Purple One. "Lankford had both sound files and links to other sites," Jerry Blackwell said. "And some of those links were to other sites that he directed and controlled."
Lankford, who disputes having any control over the other Web sites, said that he first got word that Prince's camp was upset with his activities when he received a notice in mid-August via Prince's NPG Music Club, which notified him that he had violated the singer's copyright and demanded the removal of unauthorized music.
Lankford then sent a letter in response which convinced Prince's lawyers that it would take a court action to stop him, since he wrote, "Until my Internet Service Provider says 'No,' or until I receive a judge's decision that says 'No,' I will continue doing what Prince promised in 1995 by freeing the music in a non-profit format."
The Webmaster argued that he wasn't bootlegging, but file-sharing, noting that the entire week of Xenophobia concerts were already being sold as bootlegs elsewhere on the Internet. Lankford then wrote, "My putting up a track or two a day of unreleased material for the 500 people that visit FreeMyHeart.com per day isn't going to harm Prince financially in any way whatsoever. In fact, I put up a link for folks to support Prince by purchasing his most recent album."
Prince's camp next notified Lankford's ISP provider Affinity, who took down his Web site for a month under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Lankford removed the links and had his access restored in mid-September, only to find that the matter, as far as Prince was concerned, was still unresolved.
"Yes, the files are gone," Prince lawyer Blackwell said. "But since he said he would link to every bootleg site he could find, it could happen again. He intends to keep on doing this. We could shut down his site today, and another would pop up tomorrow."
Consequently, Prince's Paisley Park Enterprises filed the suit in U.S. District Court of Minnesota, alleging that there was an "ongoing infringement." Even though any files or links are nowhere to be found on Lankford's site at present, Prince's lawsuit alleges that he "continues to willfully infringe Plantiff's copyright and has indicated that he will continue to infringe Plantiff's copyrights once his Web site is back online."
Lankford, who has discussed the matter with Prince's lawyers, says that he's confused why they're going after him and not the original Web site which posted the music files to begin with. His defense — that he didn't post the files, and that he took the links down — seems to have made no impact, he said. Prince's lawsuit claims that by directing his users to the other Web site, he gave access to copyrighted music and allowed others to make copies and transmissions, thereby violating the Copyright Act.
"There are hundreds of bootleggers out there," Blackwell said. "We can't find them all. But we do try to get the ones we do find to act responsibly. [Lankford] is spending his entire day providing unauthorized music to people. He could certainly get authorized music and do the same thing. There's a fan club for that.
"Why he doesn't get a regular job, I do not know," he continued. "He thinks he's a modern day Robin Hood. But I don't think anybody who has a legitimate job and works for a paycheck would willingly be robbed of that check, and that's what's happening to artists. And we'll take whatever measures we have to get them to stop."