Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property, Royalties » Harry Shearer Files $125 Million ‘Spinal Tap’ Fraud Suit, Copyright Termination

Harry Shearer Files $125 Million ‘Spinal Tap’ Fraud Suit, Copyright Termination

19 October 2016

From The Hollywood Reporter:

For a Hollywood accounting case, this one is an 11.

Harry Shearer has launched a $125 million fraud and contract-breach lawsuit against Vivendi and StudioCanal over the 1984 rockumentary classic This Is Spinal Tap. The complaint, filed Monday in California federal court, is packed with enough nuggets to instantly make this a must-watch “Hollywood accounting” case. Through the lawsuit, Shearer also reveals he is attempting to claw back rights to the film and its continually popular soundtrack.

Shearer, perhaps best known for the 23 characters he voices on The Simpsons, co-created the semi-fake band Spinal Tap in the 1970s with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. The film, directed by Rob Reiner and featuring Shearer as bassist Derek Smalls, was produced and released by Embassy Pictures. After a series of transactions, rights to Spinal Tap landed in the hands of Vivendi, the French conglomerate that once had the ambitious goal of becoming one of the largest studios in the industry.

Despite the film’s legacy and Spinal Tap’s enduring success as an actual band able to sell out arenas, Shearer’s company Century of Progress Productions alleges that the four lead creatives have received just $81 in merchandising income and $98 in musical sales income in the past three decades from the franchise.

. . . .

“The accounting between the Vivendi subsidiaries is not at arm’s-length, is anti-competitive, and deprives the TIST creators of a fair reward for their services,” states the complaint.

With other accounting improprieties alleged, such as undocumented marketing expenses and improper deductions, Shearer’s lawsuit references the Copyright Act’s termination provisions, which allow authors to cancel grants and regain rights after 35 years.

“Particularly given that Vivendi has offset fraudulent accounting for revenues from music copyrights against equally dubious revenue streams for film and merchandising rights also controlled by Vivendi subsidiaries, 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,” states the complaint.

That means that Vivendi would potentially lose rights to This Is Spinal Tap in 2019. Copyright termination has been a big subject in the music industry, but is only beginning to impact the film business.

. . . .

Shearer’s company says that in 2013, in anticipation of the film’s 30th anniversary, it commissioned a study of accounting statements and revenue streams that “first discovered that Vivendi had engaged in a pattern of anti-competitive and unfair business practices, had abandoned enforcement of valuable TIST rights, and had willfully concealed and manipulated years of accountings to retain monies due and owing to Plaintiff.”

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Copyright/Intellectual Property, Royalties

15 Comments to “Harry Shearer Files $125 Million ‘Spinal Tap’ Fraud Suit, Copyright Termination”

  1. Me ordering extra popcorn for this one.

  2. I hope Harry whoops their butts but good.

    • He has enough resources that shutting him out by outspending him on lawyers is probably more than they want to spend.

      It will be interesting to see how willing Vivendi is to go to discovery.

  3. “It will be interesting to see how willing Vivendi is to go to discovery.”

    Or if Shearer is willing to let them off the hook on discovery. He just might be inclined to pursue the suit and see what reptilian things are found crawling out from the rock they’ve been hiding under.

  4. If any site starts following this, please post a link (I’m hoping for something like groklaw to be formed for this one)

    If he sticks to his guns despite the cost, this could break open a lot of other similar claims in the entertainment industry.

  5. It might not be the slam dunk everyone assumes…for one thing, none of this is “news”. It references the 2013 “study” as the source of info, because courts often don’t like plaintiffs saying “Oh, things seemed fine for 34 years and then I thought, “Hey, they never paid me” so I’m filing a lawsuit”. One question some courts, at least in some jurisdictions want to see is “What’s changed?” and often the plaintiffs point to a study such as the 2013 as the “we had no idea until this point”.

  6. Very juicy. I’m getting my popcorn too.

  7. Shearer’s company says that in 2013, in anticipation of the film’s 30th anniversary, it commissioned a study of accounting statements and revenue streams

    No audit for 29 years?

  8. if the damage is ongoing, the statute of limitations doesn’t come into effect.

    no audit is common, both in music and in publishing (artists/writers have been too afraid to anger the big powers)

    One reason for taking active action at the 30 year mark is the 35 year revision option, you have to give the notice within a specific time window, and it makes sense to check and see the details at that time (do you want the rights reverted, or is the current licensee doing the best job they can and it’s not worth it)

    • no audit is common, both in music and in publishing (artists/writers have been too afraid to anger the big powers)

      When your average revenue is fifty cents/month how much worse can it get.

  9. The lawsuit has its own web site.


  10. $125 Million?

    He turned his lawsuit up to eleven… 🙂

  11. If they think Harry’s gonna go away, they’re deluded. He’s the kind of guy to keep pushing. He can be very annoying (his politics are certainly not mine), but I hope he wins big and publishes everything they find in discovery.

  12. Surprised I haven’t seen anyone mention this yet: I’m pretty sure the part of Shearer’s lawsuit that hinges on trademark is mistaken. Not a lawyer, but as I understand trademark, the studio wouldn’t have had any grounds for objecting to a brewery trademarking a Spinal Tap beer, because they only hold a Spinal Tap trademark in relation to movies and music. If someone else wanted to trademark Spinal Tap beer, or Spinal Tap chocolate, or Spinal Tap tap shoes, the existence of a Spinal Tap movies and music trademark shouldn’t stand in their way, as long as they weren’t trying to trade on design elements of the movie trademark, such as the silly umlaut over the N.

    The studio not objecting to a trademark in a Spinal Tap beer just means it had a lick of legal sense and was too smart to waste its money frivolously. Not that it had “abandoned” the Spinal Tap trademark.

    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the rest of Shearer’s argument, but as many cases as I’ve seen of trademark overreach in which a trademark holder tried to prevent someone else registering the same trademark in a completely unrelated line of business, I’m actually happy to see a trademark holder had too much sense to try it for once.

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