As the saying goes, "the truth is often stranger than fiction." In the case of Wu-Tang's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, rumors began swirling about the project ever since RZA and Cilvaringz announced their intentions a year ago to auction off the album in an inventive way which seemed to be a new strategy for music distribution in the face of mounting problems like piracy and streaming.
With an estimated original price tag of $5 million USD, the legend only grew when many believed that Skrillex had purchased the album in December of 2014. Those rumors ultimately proved false - albeit adding a dimension to a project rooted more in infamy that musicality due to the secrecy regarding what was actually on the album.
Ultimately, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was purchased by pharmecuitical wunderkind, Martin Shkreli, who first entered the public consciousness for most people when he announced a price spike in October of this year for Daraprim, a 62-year-old medication used by AIDS and cancer patients to fight life-threatening parasitic infections, that upped the price from $13.50 USD to $750 a pill. Even blowhard U.S. Presidential nominee Donald Trump took notice, saying, "he looks like a spoiled brat to me."
With the recent announcement that Shkreli had been arrested for multiple cases of security fraud, may have been left contemplating what will happen to Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
As much as we want to believe that he never purchased the album, RZA's own comments seem to solidify that Shkreli acquired the project on Paddle8, saying, "The sale of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was agreed upon in May, well before Martin Skhreli’s [sic] business practices came to light. We decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity.”
The question on many people's minds were, "did the F.B.I. have the Wu-Tang album?" The short answer, "no."
However, the charges levied against Shkreli for defrauding investors does give the federal government ample power to attempt to rectify his wrongdoings. Here are three possible ways the saga of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin shakes out.
If the U.S. government can link the money he paid for the album with the funds he stole from investors, they have the power to enact asset forfeiture - meaning the Feds could seize the album upon conviction (unlike civil forfeiture which requires no conviction).
According to the avidavit, in section 52, the charges read, "The United States hereby gives notice to the defendants that, upon their conviction of any of the offenses charged in Counts One through Seven, the government will seek forfeiture, in accordance with Title 18, United States Code, Section 981(a)(l)(C) and Title 28, United States Code, Section 2461(c), of any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to any such offenses."
The FBI declares in cases of assets forfeiture, "Asset forfeiture is also the most effective means of recovering property and funds which can then be used to compensate innocent victims. Restoration of property to victims in white collar cases is the first priority of law enforcement when it comes to disbursing forfeited property."
Thus, since Shkreli allegedly defrauded numerous people, and there is a lone copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, it would suggest that the album would need to be re-sold in order to divvy out punitive damages.
Each year approximately 300 public auctions are conducted throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico to sell property forfeited as a result of violations of federal law enforced by the Department of the Treasury or nonpayment of Internal Revenue Service taxes. A wide variety of merchandise is available, including automobiles, aircraft, boats, real estate, jewelry, electronics, wearing apparel, industrial equipment, and miscellaneous goods.
For those looking for something other than a jet-ski owned by a drug kingpin, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin could be that item.
Forced sale after conviction
Even if the F.B.I. doesn't seize Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, that doesn't mean the album won't be forced to change hands to cover what will surely be a mountain of lawsuits and fines levied against Shkreli.
While his true forture is anyone's guess at this point, Shkreli does have a piece-of-work with an established value (unlike his mutual fund portfolio). One could see a situation where the album is once again put up for auction, and has been his M.O. in the past, Shkreli could use the hoopla to jack up the price now that the project has received much greater exposure in its post-sale life then it ever did when Paddle8 was vetting potential buyers.
An Internet liberation
One pioneering music fan, Andrew Wiseman, has already petitioned the F.B.I. to release the album using the Freedom of Information Act. In the past, the requests have unearthed everything from the White House beer recipe to the F.B.I.'s Twitter slang dictionary.
As of yesterday, the F.B.I. had responded to his request.
Wiseman took his request a step further by creating a petition for the White House to release the album - requiring 99,000 signatures by January 17, 2016.
As Motherboard notes, "The album’s copyright still belongs to its creators (presumably, the Wu-Tang Clan), although it will transfer to the owner of the physical album (Martin Shkreli) in 88 years. Shkreli owns the only copy in the world, and under the terms of the sale, could release the music for free if he wanted. The only restriction is that he can’t make the music "'commercially' available."
Thus, it would be a breach of contract for someone to obtain the album and release it commercially if that someone wasn't Martin Shkreli. But with what we know about the current state of the music business, lawlessness and a "music for all" ethos could possibly create a scenario where someone unafraid of the legal ramifications could bless the music community with the album.