Universal Music Files Copyright Lawsuit Over Mixtapes Sent to Prisoners (Exclusive)

A care package featuring Eminem songs is "contraband personified," says the music giant

In the past year, record companies have been in court claiming copyright infringement on planes in the sky and in automobiles on the road. Not every target has to be moving. Some are in prisons.

On Tuesday, Universal Music filed a lawsuit against a group of companies including the Centric Group and Keefe Group alleged to be selling "care packages" that family members and friends can send to inmates who are incarcerated in correctional facilities.

Among the items being sent to prisoners, according to a complaint filed in California federal court, are mixtapes featuring performances by artists like James Brown, Eminem, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

"Defendants boast on their website that their business 'was developed to eliminate contraband,' yet the infringing copies of Plaintiffs’ sound recordings and musical compositions, in which Defendants unlawfully transact and from which they unjustly profit, are contraband personified," states the lawsuit.

A few months ago, Universal put DJ music up for legal examination, and now the company is doing the same for mixtapes.

As the complaint explains, "Mixtapes are a form of recorded music in which DJs combine (or 'mix') tracks, often recorded by different artists, onto a single CD, sometimes creating overlaps and fades between songs, and/or reflecting a common theme or mood. Such so-called 'mixtapes,' unless authorized by the copyright owner or owner of corresponding state law rights, are nothing more than collections of infringing, piratical compilations of copyrighted or otherwise legally protected sound recordings and copyrighted musical composition."

Universal says the "mixtape" is "frequently a cover for piracy," but acknowledges there are authorized distributors out there.

The defendants are alleged not to be in that authorized category, that they are infringing the copyrights of Universal's records and publishing divisions as a "door opener to solicit customers." Indeed, Universal says that the defendants sometimes sell the music at a financial loss, using items like a hip-hop mixtape as a "loss leader to boost sales of their other goods and services." Presumably, Universal doesn't believe the mixtapes fall as a fair use.

For allegedly reproducing, distributing and preparing derivative works based on their compositions, Universal is demanding maximum statutory damages in the amount of $150,000 to each copyrighted work infringed. The plaintiff also is asserting state unfair competition claims and seeking the imposition of a constructive trust, restitution of unlawful proceeds, punitive damages and more. The lawsuit is being handled by Jeffrey Goldman at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell.

Representatives for the defendants haven't yet responded to our request for comment.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner

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