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

Filed this past Friday, the complaint alleges copyright infringement and seeks a jury trial.

The estate of iconic hip-hop photographer Chi Modu has filed a lawsuit against Universal Music Group as owner and operator of the website UDiscoverMusic.com, alleging copyright infringement over the usage of one of Modu’s photos of Tupac Shakur in a blog post.

The lawsuit, filed last Friday (June 24) and reviewed by Billboard, was filed on behalf of the estate by its trustee Sophia Modu and points to a post titled “Best Tupac Songs: 26 Essential Tracks,” which bears the photo atop the page with a photo credit indicating Universal Music Archives. The complaint alleges that the estate sent a cease and desist to UMG and the site on Feb. 9, 2022 threatening a lawsuit, to which “Defendants failed to meaningfully respond,” it says. (It appears the original blog post was published to the site on June 16, 2019 — what would have been Shakur’s 48th birthday — and re-published on the same date in years after with slight modifications; the current publish date says June 16, 2022.)

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The complaint is alleging copyright infringement by UMG and 10 unnamed co-defendants whose identities could not be determined by the estate, as well as vicarious and/or contributory copyright infringement — alleging that defendants profited off the use of the copyrighted work — and that they violated 17 U.S. Code 1202 by removing Modu’s copyright information from the photograph before publishing it. The estate is demanding a jury trial and award of all profits and fees, as well as the removal of the photograph, and damages; statutory damages for copyright infringement can reach up to $150,000 per violation.

“Chi Modu’s photography captured moments of profundity and grace,” an attorney for the estate, Scott Burroughs, said in a statement provided to Billboard. “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 license before exploiting Mr. Modu’s work on its commercial website. We look forward to addressing this infringement in court.”

A rep for UMG did not respond to a request for comment; an email to the UDiscover Music website was not returned.

Modu, who died last year at age 54, rose to prominence in the 1990s as a photographer for some of the leading lights of the hip-hop world at the time, including Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J, Nas, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A and more. He was a photographer for pioneering hip-hop magazine The Source for a number of years, and his work has been featured on the covers of numerous magazines; the image of Shakur in question in this current lawsuit is one that appeared in the Rolling Stone book The ‘90s: The Inside Stories from the Decade That Rocked.