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Harry Shearer sues Universal owner Vivendi over This Is Spinal Tap royalties

By | Published on Tuesday 18 October 2016

Harry Shearer

Actor Harry Shearer, perhaps best known today for his work on ‘The Simpsons’, has filed a wide ranging lawsuit against Universal Music owner Vivendi over another project with which he is forever associated, the spoof rockumentary ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, which Shearer co-wrote and co-starred in with Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean.

The lawsuit primarily targets Paris-based Vivendi’s movie business StudioCanal, which acquired the rights in the 1984 film five years after its release, though Universal controls the soundtrack and the legal filing alleges that “accounting between the Vivendi subsidiaries is not at arms-length, is anti-competitive and deprives the ‘TIST’ creators of a fair reward for their services”.

Shearer’s wider litigation, which he has published online, alleges that Vivendi has underpaid royalties due to the movie’s four creators and failed to properly report ongoing revenues generated by the film, its soundtrack and related merchandise. All four co-creators were due ‘profit participation payments’ of 40% of net receipts for all revenues stemming from the film through an agreement with the movie’s original producer Embassy Pictures.

A statement announcing the litigation alleges: “Vivendi and its agents, including StudioCanal and Universal Music Group, [have] wilfully manipulated certain accounting data, while ignoring contractually-obligated accounting and reporting processes, to deny Shearer and his fellow co-creators their rightful stake in the production’s profits. The action seeks $125,000,000 in compensatory and punitive damages”.

The statement then notes the lawsuit’s claim that ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ has “generated millions of dollars, across various revenue streams, for Vivendi, its subsidiary companies and their licensees”, but that the company “asserts that the four creators’ share of total worldwide merchandising income between 1984 and 2006 was $81. Between 1989 and 2006, total income from soundtrack music sales was reported by Vivendi as $98”.

Commenting on the legal action himself, Shearer told reporters: “Almost 40 years ago, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner and I created the somewhat legendary band Spinal Tap. We thought there was something real and really funny about the characters, and between that inception and the theatrical release of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ in 1984, we poured ourselves into nurturing and perfecting the paean to rock loudness that has entertained so many people, even today”.

“But despite the widespread success of the film and its music, we’ve fallen victim to the same sort of fuzzy and falsified entertainment industry accounting schemes that have bedevilled so many other creators. In this instance, the fraud and negligence were just too egregious to ignore. Also, this time, it was personal”.

Shearer adds that he hopes the lawsuit will put the spotlight on dubious accounting practices across the entertainment industry that short change artists and creators.

“This is a simple issue of artists’ rights”, he continues. “It is stunning that after all this time, two cinema releases, all the various home video format releases, all the records and CDs, and all the band-themed merchandise still widely available worldwide, the only people who haven’t shared Spinal Tap’s success are those who formed the band and created the film in the first place”.

He concludes: “Vivendi and its subsidiaries – which own the rights to thousands and thousands of creative works – have, at least in our case, conducted blatantly unfair business practices. But I wouldn’t be surprised if our example were the tip of the iceberg”.

“Though I’ve launched this lawsuit on my own, it is in reality a challenge to the company on behalf of all creators of popular films whose talent has not been fairly remunerated. I am just one person seeking redress for blatant injustice, but I hope this lawsuit will, in its own way, help set a new precedent for faithful and transparent accounting practices, and fair artistic compensation, industry-wide”.

To that end, Shearer has set up a website to document his fight with Vivendi, which includes a list of creator rights organisations in both the music and movie industries. So, beyond the demand for payment, it does seem Shearer hopes to start something of a creator rights movement here too. It would be somewhat ironic if it was a fake band that finally forced the shadier corners of the music industry to start doing some real accounting to artists.