Universal Music Group Asks for Dismissal of 2008 Vault Fire Class-Action Lawsuit
On Wednesday (July 18), Universal Music Group filed a motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit from some of the artists whose master tapes were destroyed in a 2008 vault fire. UMG underplayed the extent of the damage incurred at the time, but its catastrophic extent was revealed 11 years later, by a New York Times article published on June 11, 2019.
Later in June, Steve Earle, Tom Petty's ex-wife Jane Petty, the Tupac Shakur estate, and the rock bands Hole and Soundgarden filed a class-action lawsuit over the fire, which damaged or destroyed as many as 500,000 of the master recordings in UMG's possession. However, the label responded by arguing that the artists involved cannot pursue this claim, since UMG owns the destroyed masters, Variety reports. UMG points out that their recording contracts typically specify that masters "shall, from the inception of their creation, be the sole property of [UMG], in perpetuity, free from any claims by [the artist]."
The original suit filed alleged that UMG not only failed to share a $150 million recovery -- from litigation and insurance claims -- with the artists affected by the loss, but also failed to inform those artists about the catastrophic event, and subsequent recovery, at all. "UMG concealed its massive recovery from Plaintiffs, apparently hoping it could keep it all to itself by burying the truth in sealed court filings and a confidential settling agreement," the complaint reads, according to Billboard. "Most importantly, UMG did not share any of its recovery with Plaintiffs, the artists whose life works were destroyed in the fire, even though, by the terms of their recording contracts, Plaintiffs are entitled to 50 percent of those proceeds and payments."
The article published by Variety indicates that, according to a major-label attorney, it may be unlikely that the affected artists will ever be able to sue the label for the loss of the tapes: “The issue is: Who owns the thing that was lost?” explains the attorney.
“I can’t say there is no recording agreement in history that says the physical master tape is owned by an artist, but in the vast majority of recording agreements, it’s owned by the record company," the lawyer continues. "So even if the copyright in the sound recording reverted to the artist, the physical master tape is different — in almost all instances, it’s owned by the record company, and even if the recording agreement didn’t specify who owns it, because it was paid for the record company there’s a very strong argument that the record company owns it.”
However, it's undeniable that UMG severely downplayed the damage incurred following the fire, despite internal knowledge of what had been lost. "The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety. Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage," reads a document from within the label, published in March of 2009.
“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,’" the complaining lawsuit reads. "To this day, UMG has failed to inform Plaintiffs that their Master Recordings were destroyed in the Fire.”
According to the Times, which cites a confidential UMG report issued in 2009, an estimated 500,000 song titles were destroyed in the blaze. Those lost masters include recordings by a slew of legendary country performers: Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Merle Haggard, George Strait, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizell, The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, Buddy Holly and Don Henley, along with many other iconic recordings of all genres.
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