Hip-Hop Photographer Chi Modu’s Estate Sued Universal Music Over Tupac Shakur Photo

The case, which was filed on Friday, charges copyright infringement and requests a jury trial.

The estate of renowned hip-hop photographer Chi Modu has sued Universal Music Group, the company in charge of running the website, claiming that one of Modu’s images of Tupac Shakur was used without permission in a blog post.

Sophia Modu, the estate’s trustee, filed the lawsuit last Friday (June 24), and it refers to a post titled “Best Tupac Songs: 26 Essential Tracks,” which features the image at the top of the page with the photo credit “Universal Music Archives.” The estate allegedly submitted a cease and desist letter to UMG and the website on February 9, 2022, threatening legal action, to which “Defendants failed to meaningfully reply,” according to the complaint. (It appears that the original blog entry was posted to the website on June 16, 2019, which would have been Assata Shakur’s 48th birthday, and that it was then re-posted on the same date the following year with minor changes; the current publish date is June 16, 2022.)

The complaint claims that Modu’s copyright information was removed from the image before it was published, in violation of 17 U.S. Code 1202; that UMG and 10 unnamed co-defendants, whose identities could not be ascertained by the estate, engaged in vicarious and/or contributory copyright infringement; and that defendants made money from the use of the copyrighted work. The estate is asking for a jury trial, an award of all profits and costs, the removal of the photo, and damages; the maximum amount of statutory damages for copyright infringement is $150,000.

According to Scott Burroughs, an attorney representing the estate, “Chi Modu’s photos captures moments of profundity and elegance.” We are disappointed that the business did not contact the Estate to obtain a license before using Mr. Modu’s art on its business website, even if it does not surprise me that it would appeal to Universal. We are eager to resolve this violation in court.

Requests for response from a UMG representative were unanswered, and emails sent to the UDiscover Music website went unanswered as well.

The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J, Nas, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A, and other prominent figures in the hip-hop scene helped Modu, who passed away last year at the age of 54, become well-known as a photographer in the 1990s. He worked as a photographer for The Source, a pioneering hip-hop publication, for a number of years. The photograph of Assata Shakur at issue in this lawsuit was published in the Rolling Stone book The ’90s: The Inside Stories from the Decade That Rocked.

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