Here’s something that couldn’t have happened in 1999 (and definitely isn’t a party): Musician Prince is filing a lawsuit against 22 individuals who “engage in massive infringement and bootlegging of Prince’s material.” The artist is seeking a total of at least $22 million — that’s $1 million each — from each person cited in the suit, including two named Facebook users who operate a Prince fan page on the social network as well as 20 unnamed bloggers associated with bootlegging sites.
In the full lawsuit, available online via Consequence of Sound, Prince claims that — as part of “an interconnected network of bootleg distribution” — the defendants are causing irreparable damage to the musician through copyright infringement, as well as by encouraging other fans to participate in that same infringement by making bootlegged performances available for download.
Although the actual names of most of the defendants haven’t been revealed and the websites named in the suit can no longer be accessed, the usernames identified in the lawsuit (like “PurpleKissTwo”) indicate that at least some of the targets are Prince fans. The idea of an artist going after his fans has, as The Guardian notes, inspired angry disbelief among participants in Prince fan forums. But it’s not the first time Prince has taken steps to prevent websites from using his work and image: In 2007, his team went after fan sites that hosted any images of the singer; in that case, however, the artist took pains to emphasize that he was not attacking fans, and no lawsuit moved forward. The following year, he went after the artists behind a Norwegian tribute album.
This latest round of Prince-related legal drama illustrates a question that musicians have struggled to answer since the dawn of Napster: The matter of how to deal with bootlegs — recordings that infringe on copyright but may not directly impact sales. The Grateful Dead are probably the best known example of an act having a lax-to-encouraging attitude toward fans making and keeping tapes of their live performances; others, like Bob Dylan, have long used the court system to prevent the spread of unauthorized recordings from shows or studio sessions.
In an era where Facebook and blog platforms have provided new ways for fans to access bootlegs, shifting distribution from the trunks of cars to the Internet, and the money-making machinery of the music industry has changed, the stakes are high — and the two sides of the debate are, in some ways, more polarized than ever. For those in one camp, the response has been to tighten the reins, using every means possible to keep artistic, legal and monetary control over an artist’s work and image. But to others, the response has been just the opposite: As rapper Childish Gambino told TIME recently, he feels that trying to control music on the Internet is like a baker trying to charge money from passersby who want to smell the bread.