Harry Shearer, the actor best known for the nearly two dozen voices he contributes to The Simpsons, has filed a lawsuit against the corporation Vivendi alleging accounting misappropriation, fraud and breach of contract with regard to the movie This Is Spinal Tap and its soundtrack. Shearer played bassist Derek Smalls in the 1984 mockumentary, yet he contends that he’s earned only $81 in merchandising income over a 22-year period and only $98 for his contributions to the soundtrack. He’s seeking $125 million in compensatory and punitive damages, according to the complaint.
The actor has also launched a website, Fairness Rocks, in association with the lawsuit. It contains a video in which he breaks down why he’s suing, mentioning that he and castmates Christopher Guest and Michael McKean had originated their characters well before the movie in 1978. Shearer also mentions that the group appeared in a short proof-of-concept film in 1980 that featured them performing “Sex Farm” and “Stonehenge,” songs that made it into the film.
“Tap’s a movie I’m very proud to have had a part in creating,” he said. “A lot of people seem to love it. And it seems to have made a considerable amount of money from film and music distribution for some corporations but not for its creators. For example, I’ve learned that between 1984 and 2006, Canal – a French subsidiary of Vivendi – reports that our share of all merchandise income worldwide from This Is Spinal Tap was $81 – $81 for 22 years. Between 1989 and 2006, the corporations said that total income from music sales was $98. Wow. Ninety-eight dollars is about enough to buy one miniature Stonehenge.”
He went on to allege that Vivendi had reported to him that the movie “hasn’t been profitable,” despite multiple theatrical releases, home-video releases and TV airings, prompting his lawsuit. “Filing a claim like this one is neither fun nor easy,” he said. “Going up against a major multinational is not nearly as enjoyable as playing too loud in Carnegie Hall. But people who are squashed by large corporations can’t fight back unless they have significant resources of their own. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to fight back and I think it’s important to challenge the status quo, not just for myself but I hope for all my fellow artists, musicians and creators. After all, they depend for their livelihoods on a fair return for their hard work.”
A representative for Shearer directed media to the Fairness Rocks website. A Vivendi rep declined to comment on the suit.
The lawsuit targets Vivendi and StudioCanal, the companies that own the rights to the movie after acquiring it from original studio Embassy Pictures. An original production agreement, Shearer claims, guaranteed him, McKean, Guest and director Rob Reiner 40 percent of net receipts. He says that Vivendi has cross-collateralized the film against unsuccessful films – in essence, using earnings from This Is Spinal Tap to pay for box-office bombs. Moreover, because Vivendi owns the label that manages the Spinal Tap soundtrack, that imprint pays Vivendi any revenue it makes. Shearer also placed direct blame in the lawsuit on Canal exec Roy Halpern, who is a co-defendant and is charged with deceiving Shearer.
The filing claims the company engaged in “anti-competitive and unfair business practices” and “willfully concealed and manipulated years of accountings to retain monies due and owing to Plaintiff.” It also contends that it let some rights slip, such as allowing a brewing company to trademark the name “Spinal Tap” unopposed.
In addition to winning damages, Shearer is seeking to have the rights to This Is Spinal Tap revert back to its authors because of a Copyright Act provision that terminates some licenses after 35 years. Ostensibly, The Hollywood Reporter says, Vivendi would lose rights to the movie in 2019. It is unclear which rights would go to whom.