Photographer’s abandoned Prince book at the root of a years-long legal dispute

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Prince, the Minneapolis-born musician who defied expectations, genres and labels to give his audiences an inimitable blend of funk, rock, R&B and pop, has been at the centre of an ongoing legal feud between his one-time personal photographer and his collaborators on a book project that never made it to the presses.

From 1979 to 1984 Allen Beaulieu worked at Prince’s personal photographer. According to court documents he took thousands of pictures of the musician during that time, at live concerts, behind-the-scenes candid images and photos that would become album covers for the influential albums Dirty Mind and Controversy.

In January of 2014, Beaulieu decided to compile his best Prince photographs into a book. He soon took on the writer and publisher Thomas Crouse to help caption the images and write Beaulieu’s stories from the road, and, over a year later, Clint Stockwell to scan the film and, according to court documents, store the resulting digital images.

Beaulieu claims that Crouse and Stockwell planned endeavours outside of the book project with the book’s investor Charles Sanvik, including a gallery show, despite the fact that contracts had been signed limiting the use of the photos to the book. In May 2016, a month after Prince died, the book project fell apart and Beaulieu, who says he alone owns the images, tried to get his work back from his former partners.

A few months later, in October, Beaulieu sued the trio of ex-collaborators for conversion, copyright infringement and tortious interference that stem from their refusal to return the images he says rightfully belong to him, and thereby tanking his book project.

His dreams of satisfaction soon followed. In December 2018, US District Judge Donovan Frank in Minnesota granted summary judgment to both Sanvik and Stockwell in large part because Beaulieu could not produce an inventory of how many photos he gave to his colleagues or, when they did finally return the work, how much of it they gave back. Taking Judge Frank’s ruling one step further, Stockwell’s attorney said in an appellate brief to the Eighth Circuit that “the story Beaulieu weaves in this case is difficult to follow and riddled with inconsistencies”, specifically mentioning Beaulieu’s lack of evidence or proof of damages.

Court papers tell a complicated, winding story of emails fired off, agreements made and machinations to stall Beaulieu when he decided to pull out of the project. A simple lack of organisation could be what will ultimately prove to be the nail in the coffin and bury the book that was meant to chronical Prince’s early career and the lawsuit that could have saved it and Beaulieu’s photographs. Appeals court judges and the attorneys have yet to pin down exactly how many photographs Beaulieu actually handed over and how many were given back.

The defendants claim they tried to inform him about the evolution of the Prince book project, but he never responded to their emails. Beaulieu has asked the court to reverse the summary judgment and, since he believes a reasonable jury would have found in his favour despite “the many issues and their complexity”, allow 20 minutes of oral argument for each side.

In a completely unrelated case (except that it also involves photos of Prince), the US Supreme Court later this year will have the final word on a fair use case that involves a photograph of the musician taken by celebrity photographer Lynn Goldsmith and the Andy Warhol Foundation. The dispute stems from a series of prints that Warhol made based on a portrait of Prince shot by Goldsmith and whether the works constitute “fair use”.

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