Disney is accused of serial non-payment of royalties to Star Wars author Alan Dean Foster – in a move that could ultimately affect all published writers, prompting widespread calls that #DisneyMustPay.
Foster wrote the first ever Star Wars novelization, released six months before that initial movie. Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker was based on a screenplay written by George Lucas and its his name that graced the front cover. But Alan Dean Foster wrote the book, which is still in print, and he received royalty checks for it right up until the point that Disney acquired Lucasfilm. Then the checks stopped coming.
Back in the 1970s, Foster was contracted to write a sequel to that first tie-in, working from far less material this time. George Lucas wasn’t entirely sure at that point how successful Star Wars would be and, crucially, how much of a budget he would have to play with for the sequel – which placed limitations on the kind of follow-up story Foster could write. For example, Lucas instructed Foster to keep Han Solo out of the story, because Harrison Ford had not signed on for that sequel yet.
Further writers were hired as successive Star Wars movies were released, and the franchise grew in popularity and scope, while Alan Dean Foster moved on to other projects. He worked on numerous media tie-ins for other valuable franchises like Star Trek, Alien, Transformers, Alien Nation, and Terminator, a whole plethora of standalone novelizations for movies like Krull, The Thing, Clash of the Titans, and The Last Starfighter, and also his own original novels like the Spellsinger series and the many Humanx Commonwealth books. More recently, he returned to the Star Wars universe to write the novelization of The Force Awakens.
In other words, this isn’t some unknown or inexperienced author that Disney is pushing around. But what is Disney playing at?
All Your IP Belong To Us
Disney has always been a mainstay of American life, but in the last decade or so it has swollen to epic proportions, gobbling up all sorts of popular properties and pushing its market capitalization to incredible heights: latest figures value the company at over $250bn – a valuation being propelled by staggering revenue figures, projected at around $65bn for 2020 alone.
In recent years, Disney has purchased Marvel Studios, along with all its notable IPs; Lucasfilm, home to those Star Wars movies; Pixar; and then various properties from Fox as well. Other subsidiaries you may have heard of include Searchlight, ABC Television, National Geographic, and FX Networks.
Disney owns many of the most-loved media properties in America. And now it is alleged to be using corporate trickery to try and cheat an author out of the royalties he is contractually owed.
It seems that Disney has decided that when it purchased Lucasfilm, it acquired the assets but not its liabilities. To put a finer point on it, Disney seems to be saying that when it acquired the rights to Alan Dean Foster’s work it did not acquire the contractual obligation to pay royalties for the work. To make matters worse, Disney appears to be taking the same approach to the royalties from the Alien books, which it also owes Foster after acquiring 20th Century Fox last year. In both cases, Foster says that the royalty checks stopped coming as soon as Disney took over.
To make matters worse, according to Foster, Disney is refusing to meaningfully engage on the topic, using a common tactic of corporate bullies – i.e. Disney is just ignoring Foster and its legal obligations to pay him. Disney even told Foster that it won’t discuss the matter unless he signs a NDA before negotiations even commence. Which is a really dirty trick.
And as writer and activist Cory Doctorow notes in this Twitter thread, which you can find on the #DisneyMustPay hashtag along with lots more reaction from authors:
…aside from the individual injustice being visited upon Foster, Kowal and SFWA worry that this represents a suite of new, corporate anti-writer tactics: flipping assets without liabilities, refusing to talk about it without an NDA.
Doctorow also notes that these missing royalty checks are particularly needed by Foster right now as his wife is battling cancer. Something which presumably doesn’t fit with Disney’s supposed family friendly image.
Needless to say, all this has brought a fierce response from the author community, and one of the primary writers’ organizations.
The Response: #DisneyMustPay
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) teamed up with Alan Dean Foster to hold a press conference on Thursday to lay out the accusations against Disney, who they say has failed to pay royalties for years, and refused to meaningfully engage with Foster, his representatives or the SFWA.
The reaction from authors has been fierce, with many rightly worried that other publishers could use this precedent to stop paying contractually owed royalties to pretty much any author, if Disney gets away with this. Between the press conference, a significant social media response centering around the #DisneyMustPay hashtag, and the support of many authors with large platforms, there has been considerable media coverage of the issue already, but the danger is that Disney will just try and wait it out.
These worries about setting a precedent aren’t misplaced either. Romance authors in particular will remember how Harlequin attempted to cheat a large number of writers out of contractually owed ebook royalties by creating subsidiaries and moving contracts around between shell companies – which was just a few years ago. And a battle which took an incredible amount of resolve to win, after numerous setbacks and some shady moves by Harlequin.
The author community needs to be equally resolute in standing up to Disney and demanding it honors the contracts it is responsible for. Perhaps Disney might consider dipping into one of those Scrooge McDuck-sized piles of cash it has laying around.
#DisneyMustPay or all authors could suffer – not just Alan Dean Foster.