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Spinal Tap settle with Universal Music, though StudioCanal litigation continues

By | Published on Wednesday 6 November 2019

This Is Spinal Tap

The creators of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ yesterday confirmed that they had reached a settlement in their legal battle with Universal Music, although their original lawsuit against the major’s sister company StudioCanal continues to go through the motions.

Harry Shearer originally sued StudioCanal and its owner – French entertainment conglomerate Vivendi – back in 2016, accusing the movie studio and its parent company of misreporting financial information about the film and its spin offs in order to under-pay him royalties due from the franchise. His Spinal Tap co-creators Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner subsequently came on board as co-plaintiffs.

Through a series of mergers and acquisitions back in the day, the two Vivendi companies – StudioCanal and Universal Music – ended up respectively controlling the ‘Spinal Tap’ movie and soundtrack rights. Although the Universal music firm was mentioned in the original lawsuit against Vivendi and StudioCanal, it was then formally added as a defendant in its own right in 2017 when Shearer et al expanded on their list of allegations.

The lawsuits against both StudioCanal and Universal Music included various claims of misconduct on the part the two Vivendi businesses, as well as asking the court for “a declaratory judgment over the creators’ inalienable right to reclaim their copyright in the film, screenplay, musical compositions, sound recording and characters relating to the band”.

The latter part of the litigation relates to the so called termination right under US copyright law which gives creators a one-time opportunity to reclaim copyrights they previously assigned to a third party 35 years after said assignment.

This is an area of American law of particular interest to Universal Music just now because, while music publishers accept songwriters enjoy this termination right, most labels continue to insist it doesn’t apply to recordings. Universal is a defendant on one of the ongoing lawsuits seeking to test that argument in court.

It’s the later specific legal claim against Universal Music that has now been settled. And while the terms of that settlement are confidential, a statement from the creators alludes to the termination rights point, suggesting a deal has been done over the future ownership of the cult movie’s soundtrack.

That statement reads: “The creators of the iconic mockumentary film ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ have resolved their dispute with Universal Music Group regarding the film’s soundtrack recordings. Under the agreement, Spinal Tap’s recordings will continue to be distributed through UMG and eventually the rights will be given to the creators. The parties look forward to making these beloved recordings available to existing and new Spinal Tap fans for years to come”.

Having previously been quite scathing of Vivendi and StudioCanal when speaking about this legal dispute, Shearer had much more positive things to say about dealing with Universal on its side of the dispute.

Commenting on the settlement he told reporters: “I must admit, from the moment we first began mediation with them to now, I’ve been impressed by UMG’s respect for creatives and their distinctive desire to seek a prompt and equitable solution to the issues”.

Guest concurred, adding: “It was refreshing to be treated so constructively and with such courtesy by UMG and I’m pleased we have been able to resolve this”.

But, of course, while the dispute over the movie’s soundtrack is now resolved, the legal wrangling continues over at StudioCanal regarding the film itself. It remains to be seen whether any common ground and, therefore, a settlement can be found there too.