Actor Harry Shearer, best known for voicing dozens of characters on “The Simpsons,” filed a $125 million lawsuit French media giant Vivendi SA on Monday over royalties for his groundbreaking mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap.”Shearer, who co-wrote and starred in the 1984 fake rock documentary, says Vivendi is vastly underpaying for royalties for merchandise, the popular soundtrack and the film itself. “This Is Spinal Tap and its music … have remained popular for more than thirty years, and have earned considerable sums for the French conglomerate Vivendi S.A.,” Shearer wrote. “But not for its creators.” The 72-year-old contends that Vivendi executives should pay US$125 million (S$173 million) in damages tied to profits generated by the mockumentary about a fictitious heavy metal band. He alleges fraud and breach of contract by Vivendi and cites figures that the four were paid an aggregate sum of just $98 between 1989 and 2006 for royalties on soundtrack sales. Merchandise sales generated income of $81 for them between 1984 and 2006 — not enough to buy four knock-off Spinal Tap T-shirts on Amazon.

Vivendi “failed to account honestly for the income actually received from” the movie, which has become a cult classic, Shearer said in a lawsuit filed on Monday (Oct 17) in federal court in Los Angeles.A Vivendi spokesman in Paris declined to comment on the suit. Vivendi is the parent company of Universal Music and Studio Canal, a French company listed as the legal owner of all rights to the film. This Is Spinal Tap grossed US$4.5 million in American theatres, according to Box Office Mojo. The film, starring Rob Reiner, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, was directed by Reiner in so-called mockumentary style, following the fictional band through its concert tour. Shearer, the movie’s co-author, portrayed band bassist Derek Smalls, who bears a satirical resemblance to Lemmy Kilmister, the mutton-chopped guitarist of the real metal band Motorhead who died last year. Despite its meager take at the box office, the film became a cult hit, generating three decades of residual fees from DVDs, television reruns and a 2000 re-release that is now at issue in the lawsuit. The alleged plight of Spinal Tap, who have toured as a real band following the success of the satire, echoes that of many of the heavy metal acts they based the movie upon, including Black Sabbath, whose members made very little from the enormous success of their first albums. Spinal Tap were presented in the movie as “one of England’s loudest bands”, with guitarist Nigel Tufnel proudly showing off amplifiers with volume controls that rather than stopping at 10, went up to 11. Mr Shearer said he hoped the action would serve as a precedent for other artists that have not been remunerated for their work.“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.

Vivendi and its agents “have engaged in anti-competitive business practices by manipulating accounting between Vivendi film and music subsidiaries and have engaged in fraud to deprive the Spinal Tap creators of a fair return for their work”, Shearer’s company, Century of Progress Productions, said in the complaint. “This Is Spinal Tap and its music, including such songs as Sex Farm and Stonehenge, have remained popular for more than 30 years, and have earned considerable sums” for Vivendi. The actor also complained that Canal had refused to take down counterfeit items using the Spinal Tap imagery and lyrics. He has applied to reacquire the creative rights to both the band’s name and that of Derek Smalls. It is not the first time that Mr Shearer has become embroiled in a contract dispute. In 2015, he quit The Simpsons, where he voices characters including Mr Burns, before agreeing later to return for two more seasons on a reported $300,000 per episode.

Vivendi declined to comment on the lawsuit.

KEYWORDS: royalties, copyright infringement