Judge Dismisses Case Against Universal Music Over Losses in 2008 Fire
A group of high-profile musicians and estates had sued the Universal Music Group over a fire that destroyed thousands of archived recordings.
By Ben Sisario
April 6, 2020
Smoke rose from the backlot of Universal Studios on June 1, 2008, in Universal City, Calif.Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A federal judge in Los Angeles has dismissed a lawsuit brought by several musicians and estates last year, following a New York Times Magazine articleabout a fire that destroyed huge numbers of original recordings.
The Times Magazine reported that the fire, on a Hollywood backlot in 2008, destroyed over 100,000 audio recordings containing as many as 500,000 songs controlled by the Universal Music Group, the world’s biggest recorded music company.
Among the artists that had lost “single and album masters” in the fire, according to the article, were Tom Petty, Tupac Shakur and Steve Earle, as well as the bands Soundgarden and Hole. Representatives of those artists or their estates sued Universal in June, arguing that the company had been negligent in protecting their tapes and that the company had a duty to share with artists any income it received from an insurance settlement over the fire.
Since the case was filed, all plaintiffs had dropped out except Jane Petty, a former wife of Mr. Petty, who said she had an interest in his recordings through a divorce agreement. On Monday, Judge John A. Kronstadt of the United States District Court in Los Angeles dismissed Ms. Petty’s claims.
The dismissal was made “without prejudice,” giving Ms. Petty the ability to refile her case. But Judge Kronstadt’s 28-page ruling found her claims legally deficient, and in one crucial passage said that MCA — Mr. Petty’s former record label, which is now part of Universal — owned the rights to his original recordings, known as masters. Since Mr. Petty did not own them, the judge ruled, Ms. Petty could not sue under a claim for “bailment,” or safekeeping.
A lawyer for Ms. Petty did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Monday.
Universal has long maintained that the Times Magazine article, by Jody Rosen, exaggerated the extent of the damage in the fire, and in a statement on Monday called the original piece and a follow-up article “stunning in their overstatement and inaccuracy.”
In a statement, Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine, said: “We stand by Jody Rosen’s reporting. This ruling does not refute or question the veracity of what we reported: that, contrary to UMG’s continued effort to downplay the event, thousands of recordings were lost in the 2008 fire.”
Ben Sisario covers the music industry for The New York Times. @sisario