'Spinal Tap' Lawsuit Now Seeks Confirmation That Creators Reclaimed Rights

Is Vivendi sticking Harry Shearer with the bill for defending a profit participation lawsuit?
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'This Is Spinal Tap' (1984)

Spinal Tap co-creators Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest have now filed an amended complaint in their $400 million lawsuit against Vivendi.

A few weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the companies belonging to three of the actors didn't have standing to sue, but opened the door to them suing individually as third-party beneficiaries of contracts. And so that's what's happening, although the plaintiffs are still attempting to clarify why their loan-out companies should be able to move forward.

But the amended complaint (read here) brings other additions.

For one thing, the complaint now asserts, based on the most recent accounting statement, that because of "newly-claimed expenses" including interest on "production advances" as well as "litigation exp[enses]" in connection with this very lawsuit, the 1984 cult film is now in the red to the tune of $14,003. The plaintiffs call the attempt to charge $165,348 in legal expenses "outrageous."

The profit-participation case also is going beyond claims of contract and fraud to address the issue of whether termination notices sent are effective.

The lawsuit was headed in that direction anyway once Vivendi signaled in February that it would be challenging a termination made pursuant to Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976. According to the company, the movie and associated music were created as a work-for-hire, meaning that the studio would be deemed the statutory author and that the creators would have no ability to recover rights under a law that allows reversion after 35 years.

The plaintiffs now seek a declaration that their termination is effective, and in the amended complaint, they argue Spinal Tap couldn't be a work-for-hire because the movie, its characters and its music "were developed before the artists entered into an agreement with Vivendi or its predecessors."

They say that Spinal Tap first appeared on television in 1979 in a skit for a series executive produced by Reiner, and that their later agreement for the movie gave them "creative control of the motion picture, including over the screenplay, music and other elements of the film."

The amended complaint, being handled by Peter Haviland at Ballard Spahr, also states that works "were not specially ordered or commissioned," something that will probably get attention later on in the case.

Among the other changes is the addition of Universal Music Group, a Vivendi subsidiary, as co-defendant. Universal administers the soundtrack music rights and has allegedly reported a mere $98 in gross receipts from music sales from 1989 to 2016.

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