November 19: Disney has been accused of failing to pay royalties to the acclaimed author Alan Dean Foster for his bestselling novelisations of films including Star Wars and Alien, in a fight over copyright that is being described as unprecedented and grotesque, the Guardian reported.
Foster was approached by George Lucas to write a novelisation of Star Wars: A New Hope, which was published at the end of 1976, shortly before the film was released. Foster alleges that when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it bought the rights to the novel as well as the first Star Wars sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, published in 1978. Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019 meant it also acquired the rights to Foster’s novelisations of Alien, Aliens and Alien 3. But the science-fiction author said Disney had not paid him royalties on the books, all of which are still in print and earning money for the media giant.
“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 minuscule (though it’s not small to me) share,” said Foster in a public statement that was published after Disney allegedly asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Foster and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which is assisting him, claim Disney has ignored multiple queries from his agents, legal representatives and the SFWA.
“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?” he said.
Foster said his wife has “serious medical issues” and that he was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer in 2016.
“We could use the money. Not charity: just what I’m owed. I’ve always loved Disney. The films, the parks, growing up with the Disneyland TV show. I don’t think Unca Walt would approve of how you are currently treating me. Maybe someone in the right position just hasn’t received the word, though after all these months of ignored requests and queries, that’s hard to countenance,” he wrote.
The SFWA’s president, author Mary Robinette Kowal, called the situation unprecedented. “The simple problem is that we have a writer who is not being paid,” said Kowal. “The larger problem has the potential to affect every writer. Disney’s argument is that they have purchased the rights but not the obligations of the contract. In other words, they believe they have the right to publish work, but are not obligated to pay the writer no matter what the contract says. If we let this stand, it could set precedent to fundamentally alter the way copyright and contracts operate in the United States. All a publisher would have to do to break a contract would be to sell it to a sibling company.”
The SFWA is asking Disney to pay Foster back royalties as well as any future royalties, cease publication until new contracts are signed and pay all royalties owed to Foster, or to cease publication for ever and pay all back royalties to the writer.
“We feel fairly confident that if we can talk to someone from the publishing arm of Disney they will understand how these things are supposed to work … but we can’t get past their legal branch, which is making this completely ridiculous argument,” Kowal said in a streamed press conference on Wednesday.
Following the SFWA’s press conference about the situation, the hashtag #DisneyMustPay began trending on Twitter, with major writers voicing their support for Foster. John Scalzi called on Disney to “pay up”, Cory Doctorow called Foster’s case “a gross injustice”, and NK Jemisin said it was “grotesque”.
The Guardian has contacted Disney in the UK and US for comment.