The major labels might own the rights to some of the public’s most beloved music, but they haven’t always been especially savvy about their own public image. After Napster opened the floodgates for unauthorized music downloads, the music industry sued about 35,000 people, including a 13-year-old girl, for allegedly stealing songs online. In recent years, with album sales ever shrinking and the phrase “indie” abused almost beyond meaning, the Big Three no longer look like quite such easy bogeymen, but a new lawsuit by Universal Music Group involving prisoners’ mixtapes is an unfortunate reminder of the bad old days for music lovers.
Universal is suing to stop companies from selling unlicensed mixtapes in care packages that friends and family members can buy to send to prisoners. The mixtapes, which are actually CDs, contain songs by Tupac Shakur, Eminem, James Brown, Mary J. Blige, Nas and LL Cool J, “to name just a few,” according to a complaint filed this week in California federal court (via The Hollywood Reporter). To be clear, the world’s biggest music company isn’t directly targeting the prisoners themselves, or their friends and family — the defendants are companies such as the Centric Group and Keefe Group — but at the very least, an almost $7 billion-a-year company suing over mixtapes for prisoners is a case of bad optics.
These mixtapes “are contraband personified,” Universal claims in its suit, which says the CDs are often sold on the cheap to boost sales of more lucrative items The music giant is asking for as much as $150,000 in damages for each of its copyrighted works used on the mixtapes. As Drake might say, “Got rich off a mixtape.”
Predictably, reaction to the lawsuit has been intense. A post on The 405 slams Universal for “acting like it’s the David in this situation when it’s clearly the Goliath.” A headline on The Verge says Universal is “mad” (the URL includes the word “angry”). And with 2.3 million prisoners in the United States as of the most recent census, you’d think Universal would be selling to them rather than cutting them off from music.
That’s the thing: It is. In 2013, Universal reissued music by the likes of the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z on cassette tape for New York prisoners, who aren’t allowed to have CDs in prison. The release was part of a partnership with Send A Package, a company that helped friends and family send care packages to a reported 72,000 prisoners at the time.
So while a lawsuit involving prisoners makes Universal look like more of the bad guy than, say, suing United Airlines, it’s not as if average people now need to reconsider taping that new Nicki Minaj album for an incarcerated relative. And the music industry needs to stop reminding listeners of the days when it warned that “home taping is killing music.”