A Lawsuit is Brewing Over 2008 Universal Studios Fire That Destroyed 500,000 Song Masters
Earlier this month an investigative New York Times article revealed that a fire at Universal Studios back in 2008 had initially been heavily downplayed by the company, and that the number of master recordings lost in the blaze was roughly half a million. Original tapes containing classics by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Ike Turner, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and Papas, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Tupac Shakur, amongst many others, were incinerated.
A class action lawsuit has now been filed in Los Angeles by attorneys representing Hole, Soundgarden, Steve Earle and the estates of Tom Petty and Tupac Shakur, alleging that Universal did not adequately protect their recordings and did not accurately inform them or compensate them when the fire happened. According to Variety, the lawsuit seeks “50% of any settlement proceeds and insurance payments received by UMG for the loss of the Master Recordings, and 50% of any remaining loss of value not compensated by such settlement proceeds and insurance payments.” UMG initially valued its losses from the fire at $150 million in a 2009 legal action against NBC.
Some text from the lawsuit reads as follows:
“UMG did not protect the Master Recordings that were entrusted to it. It did not take ‘all reasonable steps to make sure they are not damaged, abused, destroyed, wasted, lost or stolen,’ and it did not ‘speak up immediately [when it saw] abuse or misuse’ of assets. Instead, UMG stored the Master Recordings embodying Plaintiffs’ musical works in an inadequate, substandard storage warehouse located on the backlot of Universal Studios that was a known firetrap. The Master Recordings embodying Plaintiffs’ musical works stored in that warehouse were completely destroyed in a fire on June 1, 2008.
“UMG did not speak up immediately or even ever inform its recording artists that the Master Recordings embodying their musical works were destroyed. In fact, UMG concealed the loss with false public statements such as that ‘we only lost a small number of tapes and other material by obscure artists from the 1940s and 50s.’ To this day, UMG has failed to inform Plaintiffs that their Master Recordings were destroyed in the Fire.”
A major label attorney told Variety that the artists filing the suit face a steep challenge since labels most often own the rights to master recordings, not the artists. At the heart of the lawsuit is the very concept of copyright: who owns the physical master (usually the label) vs. who owns the intellectual property of the song itself.