Unpaid Intern Sues Warner Music Group After Months of Faxing & Filing…

Legal frivolities aside, this raises some serious questions about the perils of free internships.  Indeed, we’ve questioned whether they make any sense at all, especially if class credit or a significant training program isn’t attached.   

But are they illegal?

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Enter Justin Henry, an unpaid intern for Warner Music Group label Atlantic Records back in 2007.  According to a lawsuit obtained by the International Business Times, Henry “primarily spent his days filing, faxing, answering phones and fetching lunch for paid employees” for a period of 8 months.

There was no job offer waiting at the other end, and little coaching or training for the Brooklyn-based Henry.  Instead, Henry was brewing coffee and… faxing (?) stuff for up to ten hours a day (in some fairness, this was back in 2007).

“We think that Justin performed valuable services while he was at Atlantic Records, and we think he deserves to be paid,” Henry attorney Maurice Pianko told IBTimes. “We are confident that a jury will agree.”

This all sounds like standard intern stuff, though Henry’s attorneys now claim Warner was in clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law, both of which have clear stipulations and conditions around free work.  Specifically, body of law states that unpaid interns must receive some tangible training benefit, and/or perform work that has no immediate, tangible benefit to the company.

The lawsuit, which seeks back-pay of $7.25 an hour, raises serious issues about music industry labor.  For the unpaid intern, jobs are rarely waiting on the other side, not just at a label but all sorts of other music industry sectors.

Which also introduces problems of exploitation, especially in today’s job market.  Most interns are teenagers or young twenty-somethings, a group that faces severe employment challenges and oftentimes, burdensome student loans.  An unpaid internship compounds that issue by sacrificing paid work and an income stream, all in the hopes of landing a future gig.

21 Responses

  1. FBI

    We utilize interns at our companies on a regular basis, but we do so with the intent for them to transition into a paid position. We just brought a new intern on who wanted to receive college credit. It was the first time in about 12 years I actually received a call from his college. We had a great conversation. It was my first time even learning about the intern labor laws and such! Lucky for us, we passed the evaluation. We have a great new intern from a school that cares! Win, Win, Win!


  2. Jimmy

    Yes this is legal! He’s a lazy ass if he couldn’t get any benefit from making coffee for all these people for this many hours a day months on end. He was definitely given the opportunities to meet and make some great connections. He clearly didn’t take advantage of them. His employers would have notice his dedication to performing these humble tasks and would have offered something to help him take the next step. I’ve gotten benefit from working for 1 month in a governmental office doing virtually the same thing, and I’m interested in music too! You can’t sue to get opportunity handed to you. His tangible benefit is joining a network of music professionals, gaining experience, and getting job opportunities. I’d rather have job opportunities than get paid $7.25 an hour part time in college because the job opportunities will pay far more than the initial $7.25. And, if this internship was really this bad, why did he stay in it for months?

    • Saumon Sauvage

      No, the practice is not legal. A genuine internship is legal.

      He probably stayed until he realized what a bum rap he got.

  3. Ex-Intern

    “Use ’em and lose ’em.” That’s the name of the game, interns. Hope you’ve figured it out by now.

  4. Big Wig

    Ungrateful little bastards. We should make them pay for the privilege of fetching our lunches and spit-polishing our cars. And let’s not get started on the insufficiently ambitious ones who consistently mistake “relationship building” for so-called “sexual harassment”.

    I say, you do. With a big smile. Is that too complicated?

  5. jon

    Wonder where Justin is today….and, by the way, ‘nice job, Justin’ screwing it up for the rest of us who would kick ass to get an intern job…and would try to impress our bosses so that we’d be at the top of the list if something came open. Love the quote from his lawyer about the value of his work….of course…

  6. jeneral

    I’ve had two internships which helped me in my career. One was for college credit and the other was completely unpaid. I left school with debt but both internships offered me a position within the company because I took advantage of my opportunities.

    I actually had two jobs (hotel staff and radio staff) during my first internship and one full time job (assistant to CFP and CPA) during my last. When you sign up for an internship within the most competitive industry in the country/world, you have to pay your dues. If I was the kid who faxed and filed all day, I’d pay attention to what I’m faxing and filing, doing research about the topic, I’d make sure I had a good rapport with my supervisors and I’d make sure to become super chummy with everyone in the department. Ultimately, this could lead to the very position you want!

    • VP guy

      I had a couple internships. Yes, they asked me to stay late but I was more than happy to do it.

      Guess what? I run a department in the entertainment industry. Hard work pays off. Whining and suing over sour grapes will only hurt the next generation of young people.


  7. Ty Webb

    To me, characterizing this as exploitation is an insult to those who suffer from real exploitation such as children in third-world countries forced to work 12 hour days making sneakers. These interns are college-educated, adults who should have clarified the scope of their internship before signing on. Sure, there are unscrupulous employers out there who may try to take advantage of them, but we also live in a free country where interns can walk away from these posts at any time if they feel like they’re not being treated fairly. Also, has anyone considered that by requiring that an unpaid intern “perform work that has no immediate, tangible benefit to the company” the law creates a disincentive for giving the intern substantive work that may be useful to them in the future?

  8. Saumon Sauvage

    Some of these comments betray an ignorance of fair labor standards and lawful interships.

    An employer is not permitted to benefit from your labor without giving you something in return.

    A real internship means that the intern learns in a guided program, perhaps for college credit. It does not mean general office work that the employer ought to be paying for. An internship is not exploitation. It gives something to you for something in return. It is fair and reasonable to both parties.

    How many times does one have to say it? The worker is worthy of his hire. Honest wages for honest labor.

  9. VP guy

    Yet when I interned I met people, showed them what I could do and it landed me a long term gig.

    I’ve seen interns come in and have zero interest in anything unless it involves hobknobbing with stars or musicians. I didn’t care so much about that but they did invite me to shows, parties and I got free stuff all the time.

    The work I did paid off as I never could afford to finish college. It led to an entry level job and then 20 years later, I’ve worked my way up the ladder.

    If I didn’t intern, I would never would have anything to put on my resume along with the recommendations and leads that gave me a fair shot. Jobs in these industries are ultra competitive. To stand out, one must work hard and go above and beyond. Sorry, that is the way it is (and I am a liberal who doesn’t believe in exploitation).

    The WMG/Atlantic lawsuit is silly. The Fox one seems justified as these kids worked on the films for long hours and no pay. Big difference as Justin should have gained from being in an office with key execs. On a movie set, you are just one of many worker bees.

    • Saumon Sauvage

      That is your own experience and one heard occasionally. But it is beside the point and frankly it is ancient history. Nowadays, the internship is much abused by those who can afford to pay and should.

      Soon we will see internships for a dishwashers, waiters, doormen, cab drivers, movers…

  10. M

    It sounds like this guys was really going “above and beyond”. The interns who succeed proactively seek out projects, and ask tons of questions to demonstrate their curiosity / passion for the industry.

    It’s a lot like these artists who think they get signed to a record label and all of a sudden ….they made it and will be famous. Just because a pitcher gets moved up from the farm to the big leagues does not guarantee that he’ll stay there.

    In short, life’s not fair. Deal with it. Take it in stride, and learn from your failures.

  11. Former Intern

    Internships without college credit are illegal – at least in California. I had 4 internships while attending a major university and received college credit for all of them. I got a job right after school (different market from today but making minimum wage at first) and now I’m a director level employee at a large indie label and doing pretty well.

    If this person received college credit and provided proof of credit to the label then it was a legit internship whether he learned anything or not. If he didn’t, then he has a case here.

    I think it’s smart to always have some degree of information sharing with interns.

  12. Not Clive Davis

    Come on – college credit for interning? How can that be? How can any school – with a straight face – offer academic credit in return for a student racking up time performing meaningless, menial tasks for companies who are too cheap to pay for the help?

    OK, if you want to be an intern and work for free, go for it. Remember to bring your own kneepads – so few companies supply them. But academic credit? Yet another product of Worthless Degrees College, now opening branches everywhere!

    • Former Intern

      Yes college credit. It’s pretty standard – at least it was about a decade ago when I went to school.

      It’s not about ‘learning’ anything. It’s about being in an office where people actually work in the field you’re learning. Real world application. Even if you’re getting coffee for someone you see how they work, act, talk and apply whatever it is you learned in school.

      Personally I try to take 5-10 minutes from my day and actually talk TO the interns to make sure they’re learning. But at least they’re in the office…

      Interning for free without college credit is flat out illegal by the letter of the law.

  13. Brooklyn Mike

    Internships are all about making connections with the executives at the label. I was an unpaid interned (in the 90s) for Virgin Records, Charisma Records (remember Enigma?), and Epic Records while attending Columbia University. Yes I was doing some lowly shit, but I was seeing the inner workings of the label. It took me a bit after graduation but I worked in the label system for 15 yrs and rose to a VP level. Just sayin’ that if you work the system, your unpaid intern hours will pay off down the line.

    • Saumon Sauvage

      What you’re talking about is akin to indentured servitude, where the servant rises after 7 years to Master. Are we a modern, civilized people or are we going backwards?

  14. Ritch Esra

    This is very worrisome to me. If he prevails in court as the 2 people who sued 20th Century Fox did, it’s going to change the entire availability of these types of opportunities for anyone who wants an internship. I started my career 33 years ago with a great internship opportunity that I had for 8 months which lead to a Full Time job at Arista Records. I would hate to think that these types of opportunities are going to be taken away especially as someone who benifited greatly from it.

  15. Aaron

    Labor Law says X . If something is clearly not in accordance with X, it should be brought to court and justice should be served.

    Many people have both benefited and been hurt by companies who break labor laws (especially in entertainment industries). It does not change the point of my first two sentences in the least.