10 January 2021

Polygon: “Star Wars novelist Alan Dean Foster’s Disney royalties issue, explained”

Star Wars novelisation

This November, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a professional organization for genre authors, dropped a bombshell announcement that shook the science fiction community: For several years, author Alan Dean Foster had been trying, without success, to get paid for several major tie-in novels adapting movies from the Star Wars and Alien franchises. While Disney has kept the books in print with other publishers, with Titan handling Alien and Del Rey on Star Wars, Foster says he hasn’t received royalty payments for new editions. So, he had turned to SFWA for help, and the #DisneyMustPay hashtag was born.

Disney’s argument: it wasn’t obligated to pay royalties or provide royalty statements for the Alien novels because Foster had signed a contract with the publisher, Warner Books. And because Disney now owns the copyright to each of the novels, it can redirect them to whatever publisher it deems fit. Those involved with SFWA believe that Disney’s interpretation of copyright law isn’t accurate and that there are still obligations that carry over with Foster’s contracts.

A long trail of author royalties, however small, would be a logistical and bureaucratic commitment. If an author’s contract doesn’t specify that Disney is on the hook for royalties, but the publisher that they signed with, then the issue would seem straightforward. Furthermore, absent any specific prohibition about assigning rights under or to contracts with authors, a company may assign that contract to another without approval from said author. But SFWA says that it’s spoken with its own attorneys who uphold its interpretation of the situation. Kowal also notes, There are plenty of things that are perfectly legal, but which are completely immoral.

Andrew Liptak

A thorny legal situation, and a reflection of how convoluted copyright law can be. Disney certainly has the money to pay these royalties, and refusing them with questionable arguments makes it appear as a greedy and unprincipled corporation – which Disney likely is, just as any other company beyond a certain size. But in this case I can’t imagine that the legal expenses to sustain the argument in court would be smaller than actually paying the royalties to these authors.

On the other hand, I have to question why writing a novelization would entitle the author to royalties in the first place. The finished books are heavily based on the movie scripts, more akin to translations than original works. A one-time payment for this service would probably better reflect the actual effort involved. I do not think screenwriters receive payments tied to the sales of the movies they worked on; why would someone who more-or-less copies their script receive lifetime payments for it?

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