LONDON Fan sites dedicated to Prince say they have been served legal notice to remove all images of the singer, his lyrics and "anything linked to Prince's likeness", and have vowed to fight what they said was censorship.
The move was a shock to many of his followers and came two months after Prince threatened to sue YouTube and other major Internet sites for unauthorized use of his music and image.
But by targeting fan sites directly, Prince risks a backlash, and the sites have vowed to unite under the banner "Prince Fans United" and take the matter to court if necessary.
"We strongly believe that such actions are in violation of ... freedom of speech and should not be allowed," said a statement from the three sites -- www.housequake.com, www.princefams.com and www.prince.org.
A company helping Prince control his image and music on the Internet said the fan sites had spun the story so that it was "incorrect and misleading".
"At no time is Prince suing his fans and this is not about freedom of speech," said John Giacobbi, managing director of Internet policing specialist Web Sheriff.
"The current issue is one between Prince's record label and three unofficial Web sites and relates to the use of Prince trademarks and photographs, many of which are Prince's copyright," he told Reuters.
In a statement released later, he added:
"These forums have taken it upon themselves to wear the crown of being the self appointed representatives of the millions of Prince fans worldwide, despite the fact that they only represent a tiny fraction of Prince's global fanbase."
FANS SEE IRONY
Some Prince fans were surprised at the artist's threat to sue, pointing out that the 49-year-old was seen as a pioneer of online music distribution. He won an Internet award last year for "reshaping the relationship between artist and fan."
"The irony is that someone who has won that award is now challenging the very ethos of the Internet," said a spokesman for Prince Fans United.
He added: "The intention of this is to drum up public support, not to damage him. The fan groups want peace, they don't want war."
The sites, now featuring an image of a hand print with "pfu" written on it, said the singer had demanded the removal of fans' photographs of Prince-inspired tattoos and vehicles displaying Prince-inspired license plates.
They urged Prince to reconsider his decision, but vowed to defend their position in court if need be.
"The law clearly provides for displaying of images of a celebrity's likeness for newsworthy events or matters which are considered to be public interest," they said.
Prince, behind hit albums "Purple Rain" and "Sign O' The Times", is known as a maverick in the music business.
He performed with the word "SLAVE" scrawled across his cheek in protest against his then record label and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol.
Prince also gave his "Planet Earth" album away free with a British Sunday newspaper earlier this year, infuriating music retailers but winning plaudits from fans for innovation.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)