Last November I read an alarming Twitter thread from Cory Doctorow on Disney refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster royalties.
Foster was the author (uncredited) of the original Star Wars novelization and the credited author of the first spin-off novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (cover by Ralph McQuarrie). He’s also written novelizations of the first three Alien films. Unlike some film novelizations, he gets royalties. Or he did, until Disney took over Lucasfilm and Fox. When Foster asked why he hadn’t seen a royalty statement from Disney, they informed him that while they’d bought the two companies’ rights to publish Foster’s work, they hadn’t taken on the obligation to pay him. No royalties, so no royalty statement.
While it is possible for one corporation to buy another but not assume responsibility for its debts, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Disney is still publishing these novels so Foster’s still earning royalties. That’s what they’re refusing to pay. It’s like buying a factory that has a contract with a raw materials supplier, then telling the supplier “your contract obligates you to keep providing materials. We didn’t assume the obligation to pay you.”
Foster wanted to discuss this with Disney; they agreed, but only if he signed a non-disclosure agreement about what was discussed. While NDAs about lawsuit settlements are normal, demanding one before you even meet is a hardball tactic. That way if Disney had told Foster “Screw you, loser, you aren’t getting a penny,” he couldn’t breathe a word of it.
The Science Fiction Writers of America confirmed Foster was getting screwed over. They’ve reported other writers have likewise been denied royalties. In a recent email they said Disney has settled with Foster but rather than dropping the tactic, they’re standing their ground unless a writer complains, and then making as little adjustment as possible to handle the complaint. If anything the tactic is expanding: Disney just transferred the rights to the Buffy comics (licensed through Fox) to Boom! studios which it partially owns. Buffy creators have been informed that just like Foster, any royalties or profit participation payments in their contracts with Dark Horse are now null and void.
This isn’t the first time this issue came up. Tess Gerritsen sold the rights to her book Gravity to Katja, which was owned by New Line, which was bought by Warner Brothers, which then put out the Sandra Bullock film Gravity. Gerritsen sued on the grounds it was based on her book, and elements of her initial screenplay, so she was contractually entitled to the money New Line promised her. The judge said the agreement with New Line didn’t apply to Warner Brothers. Small wonder Gerritsen’s one of the name authors leaning on Disney.
While this is hardly the worst thing Disney has done — its willingness to collaborate with the Chinese government gets pretty ugly — as a writer I find it outrageous. As SFWA predicted when the news broke, and as the Dark Horse/Boom! thing demonstrates, all Disney, or any conglomerate has to do is transfer rights from one subsidiary to another to get out of paying royalties. Great for publishers, lousy for creators.
Actually I wonder how great it is for them. Gerritsen’s deal would have made Warner Brothers pay out at least a half million; most writers’ royalties aren’t going to equal anything near that. From Disney’s perspective, what they’re squeezing out of Foster and other authors is nickel-and-dime stuff, hardly likely to move their bottom line much.
Then again, a lot of companies have embraced the belief that screwing over workers is good management. My former employer, Freedom Communications, cut 5 percent from everyone’s salaries back in 2009, but let executives dip into a $3.2 million bonus pool to compensate (and this while they were filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy). The publisher of my weekly paper and the regional daily got bigger bonuses than my take-home pay (I took great pleasure in hearing from friends at the daily about how their publisher squirmed when they brought it up). Or it may be as simple as some executive cutting costs to earn their bonus, even if they have to cheat to do it.
And practically speaking, the downside is minimal. The negative press won’t keep most people away from Disney films or Disney + (SFWA opposes a boycott, as this hurts creators who do get paid). Even if Foster or other authors sue and win, they can’t collect enough to hurt the company; Disney in 2018 alone settled $38 million worth of lawsuits (fairly normal for a mega-corporation). And while it would be a long, demanding effort for any writer to take Disney to court, the executives who cooked up this bit of deceit won’t be at all inconvenienced. That’s why corporations have lawyers.
But whether it makes good sense or not, it’s still shitty and unethical.