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Universal Music Is Trying to Stop Prisoners from Listening to Mixtapes

Apparently a care package featuring a Nas track is "contraband personified."
Emma Garland
London, GB

In an attempt to claw back profits lost to file sharing, torrent sites, YouTube to mp3 converters—the internet, basically—major labels have been doing everything they possibly can to make sure nobody on planet Earth is listening to music for free.

That clawing process usually involves a big fuck-off copyright lawsuit. Many have been on the wrong end of one of those since Napster opened the floodgates in the early noughties, resulting in 35,000 people being sued for unauthorized music downloading between 2003 and 2008. Eventually, they decided that slapping 12 year-olds with lawsuits was not a reasonable use of time and resources, and now the major label crosshairs have turned on a different group: prisoners.


On Tuesday, Universal Music filed a lawsuit against a group of companies including Keefe Group and its parent company Centric Group for selling unauthorized mixtapes to US prisoners, the Hollywood Reporter reported. The label has accused the companies of selling mixtapes, featuring performances by Tupac, Nas, Eminem, LL Cool J, James Brown, and Mary J Blige, as part of "care packages" that family members and friends can send to inmates.

In a move that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of the UK's proposed ban on sending books to prisoners in England and Wales, which was deemed unlawful in December, Universal claims that the mixtapes are "contraband personified." It's s pretty ironic choice of words considering Keefe's homepage features a giant, friendly image of some Sweet Fusions candy. After a cursory browse around the website, it's difficult to imagine an average day at this company, to be honest. Package the kind of fruit-based candy you find at gas stations, assemble a thoughtful mixtape for inmate #108746, get sued… You know how it is.

Anyway, a few months ago Universal put DJ music up for legal examination, and now they are doing the same for mixtapes, claiming they are "frequently a cover for piracy." Essentially meaning that unless it was prefaced by "Now That's What I Call…" that collection of all your favorite songs you gave to your crush a few months back should basically be grounds for a lawsuit. While the label acknowledges there are authorized distributors out there, the companies in question are alleged not to be among them. They are, allegedly, infringing the copyrights of Universal's records and publishing divisions as a "door opener to solicit customers."

“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,” the lawsuit states.

How much could Universal possibly be losing out on from a presumably custom-made mixtape featuring “Lose Yourself” or "Keep Ya Head Up"? Not much, I’d imagine. Definitely not as much as, say, Eminem was losing out on according to the lawsuit he filed against Universal in 2012 for underpayment of digital revenue. Still, like Gucci Mane in reverse, they have a gameplan to recoup any profits made from any music that has leaked all the way into high security prisons.

For allegedly reproducing, distributing and preparing derivative works based on their compositions, Universal is demanding maximum statutory damages in the amount of $150,000 for each copyrighted work infringed.

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