Spinal Tap Creators and Universal Music Settle Copyright Dispute

Jem Aswad

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Harry ShearerChristopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner, 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.

According to the announcement, 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.” Further details were not provided.

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Harry Shearer — who portrays bassist Derek Smalls — said, “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.”

Christopher Guest (guitarist Nigel Tufnel) said, “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.”

Michael McKean (singer David St. Hubbins) and Rob Reiner (who portrays director Marty DiBergi in the film) did not comment in the statement.

The long and initially contentiously worded $125 million lawsuit, originally filed in October 2016 by Shearer’s Century of Progress Productionsl, alleged that UMG and Studiocanal underpaid music royalties in the film and sought to reclaim their copyrights to the film, its songs and characters. The lawsuit said Vivendi reported only $98 in total income from soundtrack music sales between 1989 and 2006, and just $81 in worldwide merchandising income. Guest, and companies belonging to Reiner and McKean, were later added to the complaint.

Vivendi argued that three of the co-creators’ companies, which sought up to $400 million in damages, did not have the legal right to sue. In September, a district court judge Gee agreed, noting that the contracts with the creators’ companies obligated them to “perform services — not receive rights or other benefits,” although she allowed co-creator Christopher Guest’s case to proceed and allowed the other three the option to sue individually. She also concurred with Vivendi that details of the fraud allegations were not up to snuff.

The three then sued individually, as well as detailing the allegations of fraud by concealment and misrepresentation they claim were conducted by Vivendi, its agent Ron Halpern and others. The co-creators contended there was longstanding and deliberate concealment by Vivendi of material facts regarding the actual gross receipts of the film, soundtrack, music and merchandise sales, plus expenses and the profits owed to them. This includeed the omission of a $1.6 million payment by MGM to Vivendi in 2004, they claimed, which represented a settlement in respect of VHS & DVD revenues originally underreported by MGM, as well as improper expense deductions made in Vivendi’s accounting for print, advertising and publicity expenses of more than $3.3 million and a further $1 million in freight and other costs.

The complaint also sought a judgment in the actors’ right to reclaim their copyright to the film and elements of its intellectual property (screenplay, songs, recordings and characters). Vivendi has claimed that the film was created as a work for hire, with the studio essentially the author. This would prevent the actors from exercising their option to reclaim the rights to the film 35 years after its initial release, which is permitted by law.

“The scale and persistence of fraudulent misrepresentation by Vivendi and its agents to us is breathtaking in its audacity,” Shearer said in a statement at the time. “The thinking behind the statutory right to terminate a copyright grant after 35 years was to protect creators from exactly this type of corporate greed and mismanagement. It’s emerging that Vivendi has, over decades, utterly failed as guardian of the Spinal Tap brand – a truer case of life imitating our art would be hard to find.”

 

 

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