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Spinal Tap creators set up new licensing company following settlement of Vivendi dispute

By | Published on Wednesday 30 December 2020

This Is Spinal Tap

The creators of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ have announced that they will launch a new company on Friday to manage the licensing of the cult film and all rights related to it. The new business has been created following the conclusion of a long-running legal battle with Universal Music owner Vivendi.

That dispute began when one of the four men behind ‘Spinal Tap’ – Harry Shearer – sued Vivendi and its movie division StudioCanal back in 2016. Through various earlier acquisitions, Vivendi had ended up owning both the ‘Spinal Tap’ film and brand via StudioCanal, and its accompanying soundtrack via Universal Music.

Shearer accused Vivendi and its subsidiaries of misreporting financial information about the cult film and its spin offs in order to under-pay him royalties due from the franchise.

Co-creators Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner subsequently came on board as co-plaintiffs in early 2017, with Universal Music being added as a defendant in its own right later that year.

Vivendi denied the allegations of misconduct made by Shearer et al and called the $400 million in damages the four men sought “absurd”. For his part, Shearer told reporters: “Vivendi’s distracting and obfuscatory conduct is entirely in line with our experience of the corporation to date”.

Beyond the forthright statements, Vivendi pursued some legal technicalities, forcing the ‘Spinal Tap’ creators to re-file legal documents in their own names rather than through their respective companies.

Meanwhile, Shearer et al added another element to the case, arguing that the termination right under US copyright law should apply to the film, allowing US rights to revert to them.

Then, in November last year, it was announced a deal had been done with Universal Music, settling that specific element of the dispute relating to the movie’s soundtrack. However, the following month the ‘Spinal Tap’ team confirmed that the dispute with StudioCanal continued, and that that dispute was now entering the discovery phase.

Things then went quite as the discovery phase got underway, though behind the scenes talks to settle the StudioCanal side of the case continued. And they ultimately resulted in a deal being done, with a basic settlement being quietly confirmed in September.

That month both sides informed the Californian court where the litigation had been filed that they had now reached a settlement deal. That meant that the specifics of the case – in particular the termination rights claims – would not be publicly scrutinised or tested in court.

Details of the deal that had been reached were not revealed at the time, but lawyers working on the case told the court that a then still-being-finalised long-form settlement would “restructure the parties’ relationship and modify contracts pertaining to the picture’s distribution”.

Which seemed to suggest that – beyond any damages – Shearer, Guest, McKean and Reiner would have more control over their creation, including the movie itself and any spin offs, moving forward.

Confirming that is indeed the case, yesterday it was announced that “Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, creators of the iconic mockumentary ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, have set up a wholly-owned entity to manage the licensing of the film and all rights related to it”.

From the start of 2021, it added, “the much-beloved movie and all featured characters, trademarks and associated rights will be licensed via Authorized Spinal Tap LLC. Together, the four creators intend to ensure the film continues to be available for existing and future ‘Spinal Tap’ fans for years to come”.

Noting the 2019 settlement deal with Universal, the new company added: “The band’s recording of a full-length ‘Spinal Tap’ album featuring songs from the film is still available for physical sale, download and streaming today from UMG”.

And so, it seems, a particularly interesting rights dispute, technically in the movie business but very relevant to the music industry, is at an end.

And just in case you wondered, the aforementioned statement concluded “Band members David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls were unavailable for comment”.