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Universal Music sued over Tupac photo

By | Published on Tuesday 28 June 2022


Universal Music has been sued by the estate of photographer Chi Modu over an image of Tupac Shakur that features on a post on the major’s own editorial website The estate says it controls the rights in the image and it’s being used without licence.

The lawsuit provides a short biography of Modu, who died last year aged 54. It explains that the award-winning photographer was “well known for his photographs of hip hop icons including Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG, Mary J Blige, LL Cool J and many others. He exhibited his work at numerous museums, appeared at many exhibits, and used his skills as a photographer to create unique documentaries”.

On the photo at the heart of the litigation, it then adds: “Modu created an original photograph depicting Tupac Shakur. Modu passed away and the estate obtained all ownership, interest and rights in the subject photography. Plaintiff exclusively owns the subject photography, its copyrights, and any related accrued claims”.

Universal, it then alleges, has “wilfully copied, reproduced, displayed, and distributed the subject photography for financial benefit and without Modu or plaintiff’s consent” on its websites, adding: “Plaintiff did not consent to said use of the subject photography”.

Not only that, but “plaintiff sent a cease and desist letter to defendant on 9 Feb 2022 indicating a complaint would be filed and that litigation would be required should defendant fail to comply with the cease and desist letter and amicably resolve the matter. Defendants failed to meaningfully respond”.

The image appears on an article that lists the ‘Best Tupac Songs’. According to Billboard, the article was originally published on 16 Jun 2019, what would have been Shakur’s 48th birthday. It has since been updated a number of times, with the current publication date listed as 16 Jun 2022.

Commenting on the lawsuit, a legal rep for the estate, Scott Burroughs, said: “Chi Modu’s photography captured moments of profundity and grace. While it does not surprise me that it would appeal to Universal, we are disappointed that the company did not reach out to the estate to procure a licence before exploiting Mr Modu’s work on its commercial website. We look forward to addressing this infringement in court”.

Universal has so far neither responded to the legal claim nor removed the photo from its website. It’s also not known if the Shakur estate has any opinion on any of this.

Prior to his death, Modu was involved in a legal dispute with the estate of another legendary 1990s rapper, the Notorious BIG, and the photographer’s widow was named as a defendant in a lawsuit stemming from that disagreement late last year.

That all relates to Modu’s commercialisation of photos he took of the Notorious BIG, which the latter’s estate believes infringes the rapper’s publicity rights.