The Simpsons has had a long run (perhaps overly so) and, despite being Fox's cash cow for the last quarter century, has never been targeted with a lawsuit. It took the show being turned into a theme park ride to do it and even then, it took over four years from the ride's debut before something Simpson's-related became suit-worthy.
And it's not about licensing, trademarks, copyright or any of the usual suspects. It's about the music. The Simpson's theme music that runs nonstop from entrance to exit is the problem. While it would seem obvious that the rights would be cleared on an officially licensed theme ride, the American Federation of Musicians says it isn't
[T]he union is objecting to a Simpsons roller coaster attraction at Universal Studios Theme Park in Hollywood that has been featuring the recorded music soundtrack from the show. The plaintiff union filed the lawsuit in California federal court, alleging that Universal obtained the recording without providing any notice.
According to the complaint, both Fox and Universal are parties to a 2010 agreement with the musicians guild that "include(s) a broad restriction on new uses" of music recorded for TV shows...
The lawsuit states, "Universal's use of music sound track from The Simpsons at its park does not fall within any of the new use exceptions enumerated in Article 8 of the Agreement and, thus, is not an authorized new use under the Agreement."
As far as statements go, AFM's allegation that Universal's use of the theme music for its ride does not fall within the "defined new uses" is true. It doesn't. Universal's counterclaim, that the use of the soundtrack is "promotional" and therefore, not subject to AFM's royalty demands, could also be considered largely factual. After all, a theme park ride is a giant advertisement for the franchise. But when all the crosstalk dies down, what it really looks like is a royalty grab by AFM, whose contractual language failed to nail down specific rates for use of its music by a theme park attraction.
The filing notes
that Fox originally "engaged the professional services of AFM musicians" when recording the theme song. But Universal skipped an important step, at least according to AFM, by putting the theme song to use on the Simpson's ride without notifying the union. Why should AFM been notified? It's tough to say. From the lengthy listing of various permutations that should
result in a royalty payment to AFM, it appears the musicians' union feels it should be involved even in situations the contract never directly addresses
Because Universal, with Fox's permission, used Simpson's theme music to soundtrack an amusement park ride, AFM feels it should get paid (again). But it seems to have no standing based on the quoted contractual wording. Universal's use of the soundtrack doesn't fit into the "PAY UP" bin and, according to AFM, it doesn't fit into the "EXCEPTIONS" bin, either. Unable to pin down exactly
why Universal should be paying more royalties, AFM instead recasts this "new" usage as a violation of its members' rights, accusing Univeral of "breach of labor agreement."
Not paying for something no one's asked for (yet) is hardly "breach of contract." Universal's claim that the use is "promotional" puts it back in compliance with the contract, but AFM doesn't want Universal in compliance... or at least not under that heading, which would result in no further royalty payments. Instead AFM has asked for an injunction against Universal to prevent it from further "exploiting" the Simpson's music and is suing both Fox and Universal for "breach of contract" and any owed royalties. And all of this over a development AFM didn't see coming: a theme park ride.
Considering the principals involved in this suit are IP-behemoths Fox and Universal, it's hard to believe that either of the companies deliberately avoided running this plan past AFM simply to avoid paying some royalties. Sure, Universal's music arm
has this problem
, but this case deals with one of Fox's most successful IPs turning into a theme park attraction with Universal's expertise on that end. Some IP was transferred from Fox to Universal, presumably to cross all t's and dot all i's. This lawsuit, coming as it does
more than four years
after the ride's debut, feels more like some overactive lawyering/rent-seeking rather than a case of deliberate shafting by Fox and Universal.