SFWA announces #DisneyMustPay task force

Transfer Orbit's roundup for the week of April 26th: Developments in the #DisneyMustPay campaign.

SFWA announces #DisneyMustPay task force


Welcome to a whole bunch of new folks who signed up this week: it's a pleasure to have you onboard!

For the newly arrived, the Friday newsletter is what I call a roundup — I take a look at one of the bigger stories of the week in the SF/F world and write about it, along with some thoughts on what I'm reading, and links to other, longer reads that I've come across in the last week. Other regular content includes reviews (see yesterday's review of Hench) and interviews (Martha Wells), and commentary (A look at ten years of Game of Thrones, locked to newsletter members). For those of you who are paid members, you can expect longer reported features (A look at the horrific legacy of the The Turner Diaries), and in-depth commentary on newsworthy item (Amazon launching Kindle Vella).

Some programming stuff, now that I've pretty much settled into Ghost:

I'm working on some some fiddly changes as I get a bit more comfortable with some of the features that Ghost offers. For readers looking at some of the back-issues or posts, Ghost has some additional features for discovering older posts, and I've finished up tagging the backlog here.

At the top of each post, you'll see a tag next to the date and read-time: click on that, and you'll find all the other posts tagged with that. I haven't found a way to set up a page to populate a list of the tags, but if you're looking for other features, interviews, reports, reviews, or roundups, that'll be a good way to find them.

Comments are also live: it'll prompt you to log in with your email address and confirm if you aren't logged in already. It's not quite as smooth as Substack's interface, but it works, and I do go in and read / add comments to keep the discussion going. I don't get notifications for replies (I don't think you will either, unfortunately), so I've been checking the last couple of posts a couple of times a week.

For the last couple of weeks, I've broken out the Friday "roundup" posts with "Transfer Orbit Roundup: This week's topic". I've never really liked how that's looked, so I'm dropping that: the regular roundup posts will just go with the main topic (Wild Thing's Laura Krantz about exploring the unknown / SFWA announces #DisneyMustPay task force). You can just assume that the end-of-the-week post will be that roundup.

And finally: over the last couple of months, I've had a small handful of you mention that it would be neat to do some sort of book club. I hadn't had a whole lot of time to think about how that might work, but I might as well ask: is that something you'd be interested in? I figure it could be a fun thing (maybe picking one of the books from the last month?) with a dedicated discussion location? I don't know exactly what that would look like, but if that's something you'd be interested in, lemme know. And, if there's stuff you want to see, let me know that as well.

Okay, onto this week's news: something that ties in with a feature I wrote last year about SFWA and Disney.

The week in SF/F

Image: Andrew Liptak

#DisneyMustPay moves forward

Last year, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America launched a major public relations campaign against Disney: one of its members, Alan Dean Foster — author of the original Star Wars novelization and several other tie-ins — claimed that the company had halted its royalty payments for those works, which argued that although it had acquired the works when it bought Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, it wasn't under a legal obligation to hold up that obligation of the contract.

SFWA, obviously, wasn't happy, and laid out a PR-friendly argument that Disney was refusing to pay. The reality appears to be a little more complicated. The first was how Disney transferred the license and copyrights from Warner Books (now defunct and folded into another imprint at a different publisher) to Titan Books, which is currently publishing the works. Disney's argument was that Foster's contract for those titles was with Warner, and because Warner was out of the picture, and the contract wasn't with 20th Century Fox (and thus Disney), Disney didn't have to pay. SFWA and plenty of other authors disagreed — loudly. And SFWA says that they've found more authors who are affected by this argument that royalties don't transfer, noting that writers who have had their work from Dark Horse Comics transferred to other publishers were told that "royalties don't transfer."

The other instance appears to be around the contracts that Foster did sign with Lucasfilm back in the 1970s. While investigating the story for Polygon, I tracked down a handful of other writers who discovered that they were experiencing similar issues. In talking with various folks involved here, I don't think that Disney's doing this out of malice or is cackling in a board room because they've been able to get out of its contracts, but it's really down to the mechanics of a merger and poor book keeping: it seems that in the transfer of ownership, the authors who wrote the novelizations and tie-ins for Star Wars and Indiana Jones slipped through the cracks.

This isn't to say that Disney doesn't look bad here: it's one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world, and the actual costs here would be pocket change for it. Those books might not pull in a whole lot of money in the grand scheme of Disney's billions, but for those authors, it's one part of a revenue stream that they depend on. Getting these authors paid isn't rocket science, and Disney could likely do quite a bit more if it was properly motivated. Enter SFWA's PR campaign, which appears to be working (somewhat).

First, there's some good news: SFWA says that Foster's issue with missing royalties is now resolved, something that he indicated was happening on his blog recently. Additionally, I've heard from another author who was affected, and they indicated that they've also had their situation resolved. They recounted that the issue here seems to have been in Lucasfilm's acquisition, and that it was explained that a) Disney had to do some archival work to dig up the original contracts, and b) that this seems to be a fairly common problem in general when big entities merge. Disney, I've been told, was apologetic and has paid them for the revenue that was missed. Good!

But — SFWA says that Disney is still "being reactive rather than proactively working with us to address the significant issue that we've brought to their attention," and noted that Disney wouldn't do anything until Foster made a formal claim. That's a problem — authors who might not know that they've had an issue because they're missing documentation might miss out, and this is a problem that Disney has caused. It should be on them to fix it.

To help keep the pressure on, SFWA teamed up with a handful of other of other writers organizations, including The Author's Guild, The Horror Writer's Association, The National Writer's Union, Novelists, Inc., Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime, to launch the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force. It describes the initiative as "making sure writers' working conditions are safe and fare, but individual negotiations are, rightly, between the authors, their agents, and the rights holder. Hence, the Disney Task Force is looking at structural and systemic concerns."

In writing about this issue for Polygon, I spoke with a couple of lawyers who pointed out that contractually, Disney just going by the letter and obligation of the contracts. If Disney isn't the successor entity (like it is for contracts signed with Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox), it's not bound by them, like when a contract is signed directly with a publisher. While I've had people argue that that's not or shouldn't be the case, that appears to be the logic that Disney's running with. If that's what we're going with, I pointed out in my feature that the real solution here needs to be systemic change. In the piece, Michael A. Stackpole noted that there really needed to be some sort of organization on the part of authors that helped give individual authors some help, citing groups like the Screen Actor's Guild and other writers unions.

It seems that this task force initiative will help fill that role by "looking at structural and systemic concerns." The task force includes authors like Neil Gaiman, Tess Gerritsen, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Chuck Wendig, and their first project will be to further identify those authors who've been affected. To that end, the initiative has launched a website to highlight the issue —  Writers Must be Paid — and announced give goals.

  1. Honor contracts now held by Disney and its subsidiaries.
  2. Provide royalty payments and statements to all affected authors.
  3. Update their licensing page with an FAQ for writers about how to handle missing royalties.
  4. Create a clear, easy-to-find contact person or point for affected authors.
  5. Cooperate with author organizations who are providing support to authors and agents.

The website is essentially a call for action for authors who've for 20th Century Fox, Boom! Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Disney Worldwide Publishing, Lucasfilm, MGM, and Marvel WorldWide, asking them to come forward if they've experienced issues and to share their stories so that the task force has a better idea of the edges of the problem.

I don't know what Disney thinks about this or what its reaction is: I've reached out to them, but didn't immediately hear back. Should they get in touch, I'll update the post.

Approaching this as a systemic issue is what needs to be done, and this group can advocate for better protections for authors and their rights. Ideally, I imagine that they'd want to work towards establishing some wide-ranging industrial protections in those contracts, like clauses that protect authors from losing their compensation when that IP is transferred from company to company, ensuring that Disney or other companies can't make an end-run around paying authors by simply transferring the license for a work to a new publisher. Compensation needs to be tied to the work itself, rather than just the entity that originally commissioned it.  

Hopefully, this'll bring about some meaningful change for this group of authors and creators in the long run. Time will tell.

Currently Reading

Image: Andrew Liptak

This past week was a good one for getting through my TBR backlog. I finished a couple of books: Martha Wells' latest Murderbot novella, Fugitive Telemetry, which I really enjoyed.

I also finished Michelle Nijhuis' Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Live in an Age of Extinction, which is a thoughtful, critical look at the history of the conservation movement. That history is eye-opening and complicated, and it’s really a story of our changing relationship with the wilderness, and how complicated and problematic the founders of the movement and their intentions were. It's a book that I'll certainly be mulling over quite a bit, and I'll likely have some more concrete thoughts about it for subscribers in the next week or two.

And finally, I finished up Kathleen Belew's Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramiltary America. I read a fair amount of horror, but I can honestly say that this book is pretty terrifying to take in: it's a history of the white power movement from around the post-WWII decades all the way up to the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. I used the book in my piece about The Turner Diaries, and was alarmed at how that hateful book became a focal point, helping to provide a bridge for some of the various factions of white supremacists that are out there. What's more alarming is how much of the anti-government and racist rhetoric that we've seen in the last decade or so has connections back to that movement. It's just mainstream now.

Other books on the to-read list at the moment that I'm working through: True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, by Abraham Riesman, which is proving to be an interesting, although somewhat frustrating read. Lee's been lionized for decades as the driving force behind Marvel Comics, but his central role has long been picked away at by the various artists and writers he worked with over the years. Riesman is taking a fairly adversarial and skeptical approach to Lee's career and life — it's almost a little too much at times, but it still makes for interesting reading, especially when you're dealing with a cast of characters who can credibly be called unreliable narrators. (I might have some thoughts about this for subscribers in the coming weeks as well.)

Additionally, I'm reading Jeff VanderMeer's Hummingbird Salamander (I got the last copy of a snazzy Independent Bookstore Day edition from my local bookstore, and for my efforts, Libro.fm gifted me an audiobook edition of it as well, so I should make good time on it), Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis' 2034, C.L. Clark's The Unbroken and Becky Chambers' The Galaxy and the Ground Within.

Maybe if I can keep up this 3.5-book a week pace, I can actually get through my backlog.

Further reading

  • Counter Craft. I came across Lincoln Michel's newsletter Counter Craft the other day, thanks to his primer on the differences between science fiction and lit fiction markets. That's the third part of a series he was running (the first two are about jargon and awards). I just signed up, because it looks like he's got a good regular look at publishing.    
  • Funeral donation. I was really sad to see this news cross my timeline the other day: Brandon Jackson is known as Chief Geek Photography, and over the weekend, he and his wife were involved in a bad car accident. He was horribly injured; his wife tragically didn't survive. There's a fundraiser over on Gofundme to help with funeral expenses. Starwars.com profiled him a while back, and while I didn't know him well, I've met him in passing at San Diego Comic-Con and Star Wars Celebration, and he was a really nice guy, and is beloved within the Star Wars cosplay scene.  
  • Making killbots. ICYMI: earlier this week, I interviewed Murderbot series author Martha Wells about how she came up with the character, her take on artificial intelligence, and quite a bit more.  I highly recommend picking up the books if you haven't: they're a delight.
  • Mostly Indoors British Sci-fi. Sky One debuts its new science fiction series Intergalactic (mentioned in last week's roundup), and to commemorate the occasion, Ed Cummings over in The Independent takes a look at appeal of MIBS — Mostly Indoor British Sci-fi — shows like Blakes 7 and Outcasts. (You might need to register to read the article) He describes these shows as sharing "a love of big themes delivered on tight budgets" — shows that have to overcome some real logistical restrictions, and that in light of that shortfall, they have to really push on the creative element.
    Star Cops director Graeme Harper noted that special effects are good, but that "if the story is good, it will still get through." The shows like Blakes 7, Doctor Who, and Outcasts might not have been critical darlings, but they've endured in the minds of fans for decades. I really love that sentiment (and was just thinking about Outcasts recently and how it's a shame that didn't catch on), and it does help explain why those cult classics endure. I also don't think it's limited to just British creators: look at shows like Dark Matter, Firefly, or Killjoys: they've attracted solid fanbases because of their stories.
    Hopefully, Intergalactic will endure and eventually come over to the US — I really want to see it.
  • Neighbors. A couple of months ago, the folks at Pacific Content reached out to talk about a podcast series they were working on: Home.Made. They wanted to talk about social media and a feature that I'd written about Front Porch Forum. That podcast episode is now out, and you can listen to it here.
  • Oh Captain, my captain! Disney+'s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wrapped up last week (it was fine, but really could have been either a) a film or b) a slightly longer, more focused series), and to answer some of the big questions: it's very clear who the new Captain America now is: Sam Wilson, aka, The Falcon. This isn't a huge surprise, and to double up on the revelation, Marvel's putting a Captain America 4 into development from the folks behind the series.
    This is interesting, because I think it helps highlight what Disney's bigger plan with Disney+ is: help steer fans and viewers to projects across its platform to really build up some big blockbusters. TFATWS was a complicated story that could have been a film, but had six hours to tell its story as a series. I would bet that we'll see more of this: Marvel (or hell, maybe Lucasfilm) use the TV format to set up stories that need a bit more time, and then put together a big movie. This'll especially be useful for transitional franchises like Captain America or Iron Man, which are seeing their lead actors leave, but in true comic book fashion, see the characters continue on. It addresses actor turnover as the actors become A-Listers (and thus too expensive to keep onboard long-term), and helps keep those recognizable franchise names before audiences. If that's accurate, we've already got an Iron Man successor in the works: Ironheart, in which a teenager at MIT makes her own armor in her dorm room. That series just brought in its head writer, and I'm guessing we'll see it enter production later this year or early next.
  • Shelf speakers. I'm a little surprised that nobody's come up with anything like this before, but this is a pretty neat (if prohibitively expensive) wireless speaker.

That's all for this week. As always, thank you so much for reading. Let me know (comments or email!) what you're reading, what your thoughts are on the news of the week, or anything else that's on your mind.

Next week, I'll have the May book list, and because it's Star Wars week (May 4th, y'all), I'll have some things related to that.

Have a good weekend,