December 6, 2020

Disney (Disney!) Accused Of Trying To Lawyer Its Way Out Of Paying Royalties To Alan Dean Foster

By Mike Masnick

Disney, of course, has quite the reputation as a copyright maximalist. It has been accused of being the leading company in always pushing for more draconian copyright laws. And then, of course, there’s the infamous Mickey Mouse curve, first designated a decade ago by Tom Bell, highlighting how copyright term extensions seemed to always happen just as Mickey Mouse was set to go into the public domain (though, hopefully that’s about to end):

Whether accurate or not, Disney is synonymous with maximizing copyright law, which the company and its lobbyists always justify with bullshit claims of how they do it “for the artist.”

Except that it appears that Disney is not paying artists. While the details are a bit fuzzy, yesterday the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and famed author Alan Dean Foster announced that Disney was no longer paying him royalties for the various Star Wars books he wrote (including the novelization of the very first film back in 1976), along with his novelizations of the Aliens movies. He claims he’d always received royalties before, but they suddenly disappeared.

Foster wrote a letter (amusingly addressed to “Mickey”) in which he lays out his side of the argument, more or less saying that as Disney has gobbled up various other companies and rights, it just stopped paying royalties:

When you purchased Lucasfilm you acquired the rights to some books I wrote. STAR WARS, the novelization of the very first film. SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE, the first sequel novel. You owe me royalties on these books. You stopped paying them.

When you purchased 20th Century Fox, you eventually acquired the rights to other books I had written. The novelizations of ALIEN, ALIENS, and ALIEN 3. You’ve never paid royalties on any of these, or even issued royalty statements for them.

All these books are all still very much in print. They still earn money. For you. When one company buys another, they acquire its liabilities as well as its assets. You’re certainly reaping the benefits of the assets. I’d very much like my miniscule (though it’s not small to me) share.

You want me to sign an NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) before even talking. I’ve signed a lot of NDAs in my 50-year career. Never once did anyone ever ask me to sign one prior to negotiations. For the obvious reason that once you sign, you can no longer talk about the matter at hand. Every one of my representatives in this matter, with many, many decades of experience in such business, echo my bewilderment.

You continue to ignore requests from my agents. You continue to ignore queries from SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You continue to ignore my legal representatives. I know this is what gargantuan corporations often do. Ignore requests and inquiries hoping the petitioner will simply go away. Or possibly die. But I’m still here, and I am still entitled to what you owe me. Including not to be ignored, just because I’m only one lone writer. How many other writers and artists out there are you similarly ignoring?

In a video press conference, Foster and SFWA (while admitting that no one on the call were lawyers) said that Disney is claiming that it purchased “the rights but not the obligations” to these works. That’s… weird. And I wish there was a lawyer on the call. Because that doesn’t make much sense.

As SFWA notes, if it is possible to purchase rights without the obligations, then any company could just do a sham sale of the rights without the obligations and get out of paying any royalties ever.

Of course, the details here matter, and we only have one side (and not their lawyers). There may be something very weird in these contracts (and this is, basically, a contract dispute, not a copyright one). But just at a fundamental facts of the situation look disgusting on Disney’s part. If you owe royalties, you pay the royalties. Considering how aggressive Disney is with its own copyrights, you’d think its lawyers would understand that.