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Vivendi says $400 million Spinal Tap legal claim “absurd”

By | Published on Wednesday 1 March 2017

This Is Spinal Tap

Universal Music owner Vivendi would like everyone to know that it has “genuine admiration for the talents of Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner”. But all things considered, the company would prefer it if all four creators of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ would just fuck off and die. Well, I’m paraphrasing slightly. Slightly.

Vivendi has responded to the litigation being pursued by the four Spinal Tap men, who accuse the entertainment firm’s movie business StudioCanal of “wilfully manipulated certain accounting data, while ignoring contractually-obligated accounting and reporting processes, to deny [the] co-creators their rightful stake in the production’s profits”.

Although primarily about the rights and revenues associated with the movie, Universal also controls the soundtrack of the cult film, and the lawsuit also 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”.

Since Guest, McKean and Reiner joined the litigation originally launched by Shearer, the lawsuit is seeking $400 million in damages, an amount Vivendi calls “absurd”. Responding to the litigation, the French company says that Shearer et al failed to undertake the required audit before launching their legal claim. It also says that the four men themselves can’t sue, and only their company Spinal Tap Productions should be making a claim.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Vivendi’s court papers say: “Plaintiffs never requested, much less conducted, any audit [of ‘Spinal Tap’ income]. Thus, they lack the information they would need to assert that StudioCanal rendered erroneous or improper Spinal Tap participation statements, if that had happened. However, it did not”.

It goes on: “Had plaintiffs investigated their lawsuit before filing it – a duty that at least the plaintiffs’ lawyers bear under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure – they would have learned that they have no basis on which to assert any claims concerning the calculation and payment of the Spinal Tap participation. That is because StudioCanal has accounted and paid STP’s participation in accordance with the agreement”.

Noting the rather high damages now being sought, the legal filing continues: “Plaintiffs may not like the fact that they have not received anything close to the $400 million in contingent compensation that their complaint absurdly claims they should have received. But that is only because the movie they made has not generated anywhere near the revenue necessary to pay them anything close to that sum. As a reality check on this lawsuit, even though ‘Spinal Tap’ has garnered affection in the United States, it has generated US theatrical revenue of under $5 million. Revenue from other sources and territories has been similarly modest”.

Whether those revenues were sufficiently modest to justify the profit share payments the four men claim they received for two decades of merch and soundtrack sales – $81 and $98 respectively – remains to be seen.

Vivendi wants much of the Spinal Tap lawsuit dismissed at the first hurdle, though even it wants the court to consider part of Shearer’s legal action – his attempt to reclaim music rights linked to the movie under the increasingly newsworthy reversion right that sits in US copyright law and kicks in 35 years after songwriters and musicians assign their rights to third parties. There are plenty of technicalities around that reversion right though, and Vivendi hopes to employ a bunch of them to get the courts to say Shearer et al don’t have a reversion right.