Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

A Publishing Model I Hope Won’t Catch On (or) Disney Must Pay!

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.

#SFWApro. #Disneymustpay



  1. Der

    “Then again, a lot of companies have embraced the belief that screwing over workers is good management.” – That part apparently applies to almost every company. Or at least the big ones I’ve known. My wife worked for a big IT company and they always were severly understaffed. Meaning that every team needed, lets say, eight members and had four, or three. They always complained to the manager and the manager keept telling them that they were looking for more people. When they finally fired her(that company always fires people) we found out that being understaffed WAS part of the modus operandi there. The managers would get bonuses based on how many people they had on their teams. If they had the amount the company asked for? no bonus. If they were understaffed? bonuses. Severly understaffed? BIG bonuses. Screw big companies

    1. And even though corporate America knows losing workers or burning them out is bad — onboarding and training new people isn’t cheap and wastes time — many employers would sooner treat them like shit than pay them better or otherwise incentivize them to stay.

  2. conrad1970

    It’s the same the world over. Big companies screw over the little people.
    My wife works for Boots Pharmacy here in the UK, it used to be a great company to work for until the Amarican company Greenmart took over. Now they screw over the staff and lay people off whenever they get the chance while the managers rake in the bonuses.

  3. The big shift happened in the 1980s; prior to that time, business schools taught MBAs that an executive’s job was to balance all the demands on a company; product quality, employee welfare, brand image, and shareholders’ return on investment. At some point in the ‘80s, somebody decided that the only one of those that mattered was the shareholders. A CEO and Board’s first and only priority and obligation was to Wall Street. The stock price and shareholder dividends are the only thing that matters. In return, Wall Street rewards CEOs and upper-level executives with obscene salaries, bonuses and stock options. The employees who do the work are replaceable cogs with very little value.

    Michael Eisner embraced this philosophy and baked it into Disney’s culture. Bob Iger mitigated it a little bit, paying at least a little attention to brand and reputation, but it looks like Chapek wants to double-down on the Eisner approach: “My only obligation is the the shareholders, and my only obligation to them is to make them money.”

    1. It was around the same time that banks and investment firms embraced speculation and risk big-time (according to “Devil Take the Hindmost,” a book on financial speculation). Before that, the investment culture respected prudence a lot more.
      I’ve always thought it telling that libertarians who insist companies have no responsibility to deal with customers fairly — they should have exercised due diligence! — never apply that to shareholders. Doglike devotion is what they’re entitled to.

  4. Le Messor

    Remember in the 80s, perhaps in response to what Jim Mac is saying above, and all the movies were about ‘companies are evil’?
    Whatever happened to that?

    I originally heard of Alan Dean Foster from his novelisations, but later got to his Spellsinger series, and it’s among my favourite book series.

    “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.””
    Unfortunately, whereas in that case the supplier just has to cut off supply, Foster has no such recourse.

  5. One of Ricky Gervais’s Globes speeches springs to mind: “The companies you lot work for… if IS*S formed (a movie company) you’d be straight on to your agent!”
    Typical of the House of M(ouse).
    Always baffles me that economic rapaciousness/selfishness/social Darwinism is put up with, nay, encouraged; yet equivalent behaviour in social terms – anything from having too many babies you can’t afford to taking stuff that’s not yours – is frowned upon, and gasp, called criminal sometimes!
    Wondered about that acronym: it’s Science Fiction Writers of America!

    1. Le Messor

      It’s like banks. They promise you no fees (they have fees they just call them charges or something), they have ruthless policies, they foreclose without mercy. Banks rob you blind all day.

      But you rob *one* bank, and they treat you like a criminal.

    2. An article in Vox a couple of years back pointed out that it’s usually easier and cheaper to bust a small-time person than take on a CEO. Plus DAs may someday want to quit and work for the law firm that handles the CEO’s case. And while people in the abstract think CEOs and bankers should do the time if they pull the crime, the reaction when they show up in the dock is that they look too respectable to really deserve a harsh punishment.

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