On Monday, April 19th, Guru, one of the truly talented MCs of all time, passed away after a long battle with cancer. He will, of course, be missed as an individual artist, but most of us were introduced to him as part of GangStarr, the group he performed in with DJ Premier for almost 15 years. The two parted ways, apparently acrimoniously, in 2003, after which Guru released a number of jazz/hip-hop fusion albums and then began collaborating with MC Solar. In a letter to his fans released after his death, Guru indicated a desire that Premier have nothing to do with any future use of Guru’s name or likeness, and he called himself the “sole founder of GangStarr.” According to the letter, Guru instructed his lawyers to allow only Solar to exploit his work. AllHipHop.com reported on Guru’s untimely passing and deathbed wishes: http://allhiphop.com/stories/news/archive/2010/04/20/22177912.aspx
For both lawyers and hip-hop fans, the Guru letter raises interesting questions. Putting aside technical questions about whether the letter accomplishes Guru’s legal purpose, to what extent do we want one member of a duo or group to restrict other members from using the work or image that was developed collaboratively? In a state that recognizes a post-mortem right of publicity, Guru’s heirs can limit Premier’s exploitation of Guru as an individual. But if Premier is a joint author of any copyrighted works developed by Gangstarr, or co-owner of any trademarks or other property of the duo, will Guru’s attorneys be able to give effect to his wishes? More importantly, in a creative community where collaborations create some of the richest music, and where beefs and splits are common, do we want any member to have veto power over the creative product, possibly limiting all of our enjoyment in it? Think of splits over the years between members of major groups such as EPMD and Eric B & Rakim, or, more recently, Dipset.