Given its immense appetite for entertainment content to keep its film and television pipelines full, you’d think the Walt Disney Co. would do its best to treat his creative talents fairly.
You would be wrong.
For years, Disney has been fooling writers and artists into tie-in products – novels and graphic novels based on some of its major franchises – of the royalties that are owed to their works. This is the conclusion of a task force made up of science fiction and fantasy writers of America and joined by Writers Guild East and West and many other creator advocacy organizations.
Disney manages to get away with using the exhaustion tactic. They are wearing out the people. ”
– Mary Robinette Kowal, science fiction and fantasy writers of America
“This is wage theft and it is very pernicious,” says Mary Robinette Kowal, award-winning author and former president of SFWA.
Disney turned a deaf ear to the task force, which offered to provide the company with the names and addresses of writers and artists who are owed royalties.
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“They say individual artists and agents have to contact them,” Kowal told me. The task force collected information on royalty applicants through their website, writersmustbepaid.org, and through the Twitter hashtag #DisneyMustPay.
In strictly legal terms, Disney’s responsibilities for copyrights can be obscure in some cases, in part because the original contracts have different terms and obligations. Contracts in the comics industry can sometimes allow royalty obligations to be extinguished when a property is licensed.
But there is no question that the company, which earned $ 2.5 billion in profits last year on $ 67.4 billion in revenue, owes a moral responsibility to the people who generate the creative content on which the its fortunes.
Kowal says Disney may owe hundreds of writers and artists royalties on average of a few thousand dollars each, with a handful of larger claims reaching $ 5,000 and $ 20,000.
“For a freelancer, it’s significant,” he says. Even the largest sums would be reduced to zero in any individual effort to bring Disney to court. “For Disney, this is a pocket change,” says Kowal. “We want Disney to address this problem comprehensively.”
This problem has been simmering for nearly two years, or since it was made public by SFWA e Alan Dean Foster, respected and prolific science fiction author. Foster signed a contract with George Lucas to write a novel for the first “Star Wars” movie even before the film premiered in 1977, when Foster was 30 years old. He then wrote a sequel related to the concept. He is now 75 years old.
Royalties for the books mysteriously ceased in 2012, around the time Disney acquired Lucasfilm. As well as the royalties from the novels that Foster wrote of the first three “Alien” films for 20th Century Fox, around the time Fox was acquired by Disney in 2019.
“I thought, well, they’re not making a lot of money right now, and there will be an established statement when there is enough money to make it worthwhile,” Foster told me. When more time passed without any statements, he asked his agent, Vaughne Hansen, to investigate.
Eventually Disney told her that “they had acquired the properties from Fox and Lucasfilm, but they had not acquired the obligations,” Foster recalls. “This suddenly made this an important point of contract law, and not just a matter of Mr. Foster’s copyright.”
Foster eventually got paid, but not without lengthy discussions and only after going public in November 2020.
Disney refuses to comment on the disc controversy, other than referring to a one-line statement released that year.
“We are closely examining whether royalty payments may have been lost due to the integration of the acquisition and will take appropriate corrective measures if so,” the company said at the time.
But little progress has been made since then, as the ranks of creative artists have swelled who have reported being stiffened by the entertainment behemoth.
Some of the complaints arise from reprints published by companies other than the original publishers of the books or comics. They include “omnibus” editions that collect several graphic novels in single volumes and that may involve the work of dozens of individual artists.
Even Marvel Entertainment, which agents say is the most collaborative Disney subsidiary in resolving payment gaps, can take a year or more to do so.
In some cases, according to the writers’ reps, Marvel has agreed to make payments under its standard incentive agreement, which may be less than the original contract specified. “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than not getting paid,” a rep told me.
This was the experience of Jerry Prosser, whose 1992 graphic novel “Aliens: Hive” was re-released in early 2021 as part of a 1,000-page hardcover omnibus from Marvel, priced at $ 125 list price. Prosser was unaware of the re-release plans until late 2020, when he learned of them by accident.
To find out what rights he might have been entitled to, “I reached out to Marvel in every possible way and got no response,” he says. Eventually he received what he considered an adequate sum, “but they made me work for it.”
Prosser paid an agent a 15% commission to contact the company, which means “I received 15% less than I would have gotten if they had replied to my emails, but without her I probably wouldn’t have gotten a cent “. (She has chosen not to tell me how much she has received.)
The royalty issue stems in part from the buying madness Disney has been engaging in since 2009, when it did acquired Marvel Entertainment and his stable of superheroes – including Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X-Men – for $ 4 billion. okay, Disney acquired Lucasfilm and its “Star Wars” franchise. for $ 4.05 billion in 2012 and The entertainment assets of 20th Century Fox for $ 71.3 billion in 2019.
The integration of all these companies was a complex operation due to the multiplicity of business documents and payment systems.
Some artists and writers may have fallen victim to particularities in entertainment contracts. For example, royalty responsibilities in the comic industry may not be as clear as in book publishing.
This may be the case with some of the re-released material from Boom Studios, an independent publisher in which Disney inherited a minority stake when it acquired Fox, which made the original investment. Dark Horse Comics published “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” graphic novels and other licensed properties from Fox, which subsequently licensed the novels to Boom.
“Boom hasn’t been conditional on anyone else paying,” says Paul Levitz, board member of Boom, former president and editor of DC Comics.
Levitz says Boom has volunteered to make royalty payments based on their contractual standards.
Agents say those contracts set a sales threshold of 10,000 copies before copyrights begin, a level that is unlikely to be achieved for properties associated with a series that largely sold out its series early in the year. 2000s. In any case, representatives of writers and artists claim that no one has received payments from Boom on those terms.
Many of the works were originally contracted as “rental works,” which means that the copyrights are not owned by the authors or illustrators, but by the original contracting authority, such as Lucasfilm or Fox, and have therefore been transferred to Disney. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that creators aren’t owed royalties when works are republished.
“These franchises are ongoing, so these books will stay in print pretty much forever,” says Michael Capobianco, a former SFWA president whose late wife Ann Crispin wrote three books that tell the story of Han Solo’s life prior to his appearance. in the first “Star Wars movie, for which Crispin’s legacy claims royalties are due and unpaid.”
“These books have slow but steady sales,” says Capobianco. Crispin, who died in 2013, wrote as AC Crispin.
The task force suspects Disney is using the confusion to leave creative artists in the cold.
Kowal and others say Disney has refused to take a proactive approach to identifying creative artists who owe money and pay what they owe. The company ignored requests from the task force and individual agents to post a portal on its website and a FAQ page to inform writers on how to file complaints and to whom they should be directed.
The company also refused to accept names and contact information from SFWA for writers and artists who contacted the organization. “Disney gets away with using the exhaustion tactic,” Kowal told me. “They wear people out.”
The tactic works, he says, “Some writers just gave up because Disney puts up roadblocks and makes people jump through obstacles.”
The company, according to Kowal, told some authors who stopped receiving royalties or royalty claims that this happened because it didn’t have their addresses. “They tell the authors they’ve sent copies of copyright books to,” says Kowal, “so clearly they have their mailing addresses.”
Some of the problems are due to “disorganization and miscommunication,” says Alice Speilburg, a literary agent who represents about a dozen creators who charge Disney. “But there is also a pushback. It is too much trouble [for Disney] to find all these authors. So while they know it’s happening, they’re not taking the initiative to get these authors into the system. ”
The licensing and licensing sequence, he says, has produced a “no man’s land where no one takes credit for being the person who has to pay the writer.”
Disney’s failure – or refusal – to proactively resolve its creators’ copyright claims should concern every creative artist.
“Disney’s argument is that they bought the rights but not the obligations to the contract,” Kowal said at a 2020 press conference on Foster’s plight. “If we let that remain, it could set a precedent for fundamentally altering the way copyright and contract work in the United States. All a publisher would have to do to break a contract would be to sell it to a subsidiary company. “
In the same event, Foster himself evoked the memory of Walt Disney by appealing to the company. “I’ve always loved Disney,” he said. “I don’t think Uncle Walt would approve of the way you’re treating me right now.”