Universal caught up in $125m lawsuit as Spinal Tap star accuses Vivendi of fraud


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This Is Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer is suing Universal parent Vivendi for what he alleges is dramatic and deliberate under-payment of music royalties from the classic spoof rockumentary.

In a lawsuit filed at the Central District Court of California yesterday (October 17), Shearer accuses Vivendi of “fraudulent accounting for revenues from music copyrights” – through Universal – as well as mismanaging film and merchandising rights through UMG sister companies such as StudioCanal.

Shearer co-created the film, co-wrote the soundtrack and starred as the Spinal Tap band’s bassist, Derek Smalls.

He claims that between 1989 and 2006, total income from soundtrack music sales for the four creators of the film was reported by Vivendi as just $98. (Yes, ninety-eight dollars.)

In addition, he claims that Vivendi ‘asserts that the four creators’ share of total worldwide merchandising income between 1984 and 2006 was $81’.

The complaint reveals: “Shearer is concurrently filing notices of copyright termination for publishing and recording rights in Spinal Tap songs he co-wrote and co-recorded, as well as in the film itself”.

The action seeks US$125,000,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Shearer alleges that Vivendi has “failed and refused, and continues to fail and refuse, to provide Plaintiff with proper and accurate accountings reflecting the amount of revenues derived from the distribution and exploitation of the Film and associated music and merchandise rights”.

According to the complaint’s allegations, Vivendi also “engaged in a pattern of anti-competitive and unfair business practices” and “willfully concealed and manipulated years of accountings to retain monies due and owing to [Shearer]”.

Vivendi’s agents are named as StudioCanal (film rights) and Universal Music Group (music rights).

Shearer, well-known for voicing 23 characters on the long-running animated television series ‘The Simpsons’, filed the suit through Century Of Progress Productions.

 “Almost 40 years ago, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner and I created the somewhat legendary band Spinal Tap,” said Shearer.

“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.”

In 1982, Reiner, Shearer, Guest, and McKean – signed an agreement with Embassy Pictures, Inc. for the production, financing and distribution of This Is Spinal Tap. 

According to Shearer, this agreement ensured profit participation payments, at the rate of 40% of net receipts, to the creators based on all sources of revenue, including merchandise and music.

After two years of production, the film was released in 1984.  

It was produced on a shoestring budget of US$2.25 million. Yet This Is Spinal Tap and the music and merchandise that it and the band have spawned, earned tens of millions of dollars in revenue, according to the complaint – through re-releases, album and singles sales, merchandise sales, and distribution of the film in various formats, across the globe over the course of the last 32 years.

Shearer alleges that these profits have not been fairly shared with the four co-creators, cast or crew.

After Vivendi acquired the rights to This Is Spinal Tap in 1989, through its subsidiary Canal, the lawsuit alleges it began a “concerted and fraudulent campaign to hide, or grossly underreport, the film’s revenues in order to avoid its profit participation obligations”.

In the past two years, Vivendi has altogether failed to produce an account of any Tap revenue, according to the complaint.

 “This is a simple issue of artists’ rights,” added Shearer, who is attempting to turn his lawsuit into a pro-artist campaign with the new ‘Fairness Rocks’ website.

“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.”

“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,” Shearer continued.

“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.”Music Business Worldwide

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  • seth keller

    It’s unclear from this article whether Mr. Shearer or any of the other profit participants hired an accounting firm to audit Universal. In the US, it’s expensive–usually $50K minimum–but he could definitely afford it. To me, that would seem the first step before launching a lawsuit. On the music side, from what I’ve experienced, star artists who audit labels are usually successful in finding the missing income and getting big checks from the labels without resorting to suing them.

    • Jeff Clayton

      Hiring an auditor might be expedient, but it means paying from your own pocket to stop a single instance of abuse. Shearer says he’d like to curb abusive practices once and for all – and if he is in the right, the abuser pays.

      • seth keller

        Interesting concept. There have been plenty of lawsuits against labels for unpaid royalties. Many have successfully extracted unpaid royalties from said labels (usually in the form of settlements), but none to my knowledge have changed the accounting practices of any labels. If he wants change in label accounting practices, then maybe a class action lawsuit is the way to go.

  • NoHoman

    I would seem to me doing such an omnibus suit is a fools game if they have an intention to ever see a courtroom.

  • MBW: Did you contact Universal Music or Vivendi for a comment on this? It’s unlikely they’d make one as they generally just stay silent on allegations like this, but it’s fair and proper journalism to give them the chance. If Tap’s deal was with Embassy, it’s possible Uni/Vivendi has been paying them, and Embassy hasn’t flowed through royalties. Shearer does claim to have statements from Vivendi for 15 years of royalties though, so theoretically they make the payments. But if in 15 years ending in 2006, the band only received $98 in royalties, why would Shearer wait until 2016 to file a complaint? Something doesn’t smell right here.

    • TouringToSellShirts

      Embassy has been dead since ’86. Universal likely bought up their catalog in their demise.

  • Bluto Rules ✓ᴰᵉᵖˡᵒʳᵃᵇˡᵉ

    This one goes to eleven.

  • Paul Evans

    best of luck with the suit Harry . and if you don’t win there’s always the chance of a “bizarre gardening accident”

  • Bob Ardrey

    If you can make and sell any of your own Spinal Tap merchandise to pay for your legal fees, etc., I will gladly pay again…for a copy of the movie, a t-shirt, anything, as long as I know you are getting the proceeds. I actually saw the movie in a theater during its 1 week run (with 6 other people on a Tuesday night) so I’ve been in since the beginning. And…what about that New Originals reunion?