Comedy legend Harry Shearer filed a $125 million lawsuit on Monday alleging that he’s been cheated out of royalties earned by This Is Spinal Tap, the 1984 classic he co-created with fellow stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and director Rob Reiner.
In the three decades since its release, the film has become part of the fabric of popular culture, introducing numerous catchphrases into the popular lexicon — most notably the extra-loud guitar amplifiers that “go to 11,” an oft-quoted line uttered by bands across the globe. What’s more, it did much to popularize the “mockumentary” film genre. But despite This Is Spinal Tap‘s long-term appeal, Shearer, 72, claims to have earned just $81 in merchandising income and $98 in musical sales income from the film.
The suit, filed in a Los Angeles federal court, was leveled at the French corporation Vivendi S.A., which controls the rights to the film, as well as its subsidiary, StudioCanal. Shearer claims that Vivendi and StudioCanal have denied him millions of dollars in profit due to fraudulent or negligent bookkeeping. In addition to the financial compensation, he is also seeking to control the copyright to the band name, and that of his character in the film, bassist Derek Smalls.
Shearer addressed the controversy on his newly launched website, Fairness Rocks, which boasts an enormous volume of information relative to his legal plight. “This U.S. legal complaint is important for all creators and artists,” the message on the landing page reads. “Popular music and films make huge money for rights-owning corporations. Yet, too often, the artists and creators get a raw deal from exploitation of their talent. I want to help rebalance this equation.”
“Filing a claim like this one is neither fun nor easy,” he continues in a video posted to the site. He goes on to say that he approached Vivendi S.A. in 2013 with accounting questions, only to be told the film simply wasn’t profitable. “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.”
This is not the first time Shearer has taken a hard line in contract disputes. In 2015 he threatened to leave his longtime job on The Simpsons (where he voices 23 characters). “There were rumors that Shearer was delaying proceedings [on production of the show’s 27th and 28th seasons] by refusing to put pen to paper because of a new deal concerning merchandising rights,” Empire reported at the time. Ultimately an agreeable conclusion was reached and he stayed with the series.