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In November, author Alan Dean Foster wrote an open letter claiming that he was owed royalties for work relating to both the Star Wars and Alien franchises dating back to The Walt Disney Co.’s $4 billion buy of Lucasfilm in 2012 and the closing of its $71 billion 21st Century Fox buy in 2019. “My wife has serious medical issues, and in 2016 I was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer,” Foster wrote. “We could use the money. Not charity: just what I’m owed.”
Foster wasn’t alone. On April 28, an activist effort called the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force — a project supported by the Authors Guild, National Writers Union, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and other organizations — launched to help writers discover if they’re owed royalties from Disney, and what to do if they are.
The group lists a number of companies that had been identified as owing money, including three Disney-owned, or part-owned, publishers: Disney Worldwide, Marvel Worldwide (the publishing arm of Marvel Entertainment) and Boom! Studios, in which Disney owns a minority stake. According to the task force, roughly a dozen writers have claimed the royalties are owed by Disney.
One of those writers is the late author Ann C. Crispin, whose novels include a trilogy of books featuring Star Wars character Han Solo. “I discovered that an omnibus edition [of those novels] was published by Barnes & Noble when it first appeared in 2017, and I complained to the estate’s agent when there was no mention of it on the next royalty statements,” says Crispin’s widower, Michael Capobianco. “I believe at that time the agent contacted the new publisher but was unable to get a satisfactory answer. … In fact, I didn’t even realize that Disney was involved. I assumed that the new editions had been licensed under the original publishers’ contracts and had no idea what Disney had done until SFWA started publicizing [Foster’s] situation.”
For Walter Jon Williams, who wrote the 2002 novel Star Wars: The New Jedi Order — Destiny’s Way, the situation was similarly vague. “It seems to have sold well,” he says. “I’ve never received royalties, nor do I know whether I am owed royalties because Disney won’t tell me. My agent hasn’t received a royalty statement in years. My problem is not only that I haven’t received royalties, but that I’m being kept in ignorance concerning whether or not royalties are owed.”
Another writer, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on the condition of anonymity, underscored the lack of information available to creators when it came to work done for Disney properties: “I only learned of work of mine being reprinted by a company who I had had no contact with after accidentally coming across the news on Twitter,” that author explains.
Part of the issue comes from Disney’s stance toward royalties on properties owned by the company but published by third parties. The task force announcement made reference to Boom! Studios telling a writer inquiring about missing royalties on a reprinted Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book project that “royalties don’t transfer.”
This is backed up by a statement from a Disney legal representative in correspondence with Foster’s representatives, shared with THR, in which the argument is made that “[the original publisher] had personal service agreements with Mr. Foster under which [it] was obligated to pay compensation to Mr. Foster in connection with the novelizations. Neither Fox nor Disney have assumed any of these obligations to Mr. Foster, nor did they agree to a separate obligation to do so.”
When asked for comment, Disney responded to the claims: “We are carefully reviewing whether any royalty payments may have been missed as a result of acquisition integration and will take appropriate remedial steps if that is the case.”
A source close to Disney tells THR that the company has made significant progress identifying authors and fulfilling payment where appropriate, including facilitating conversations where third-party publishers are involved.
The #DisneyMustPay task force is focusing on several areas: existing contracts to be honored by Disney; providing royalty statements and payments to all authors; creating a clear public FAQ for writers pursuing missing royalties; identifying a single point of contact at Disney for this matter; and cooperating with organizations acting on behalf of affected authors. (A notable absence from the list of organizations attached to the task force is the Writers Guild of America. While the group has yet to issue a statement with regard to the issue, a spokesperson pointed to a June 2020 legal settlement it reached with Disney over late residual payments for five animated Fox series, including The Simpsons and Family Guy.)
Indeed, James Kahn — who claims royalties for his 1983 novelization of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi ceased being paid after Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm — had a positive experience with Disney. “They were very nice, and sympathetic, and apologetic if they’d been lax in payments. They said things like, ‘This sometimes falls through the cracks when there are big corporate takeovers,’ and they said a lot of that 1980s accounting was in cardboard boxes in some [Lucasfilm] warehouse,” he says. “Having the original contract helped my case. The other issue that helped, I think, was that they still published my book through the original publishers, Del Rey.”
Kahn isn’t the only writer to resolve the issue. Donald Glut, author of 1980’s Empire Strikes Back novel, has also settled. And Foster eventually received royalties for his work and, according to his agent, Vaughne Hansen, the public effort was crucial in making it happen: “Writers organizations are an invaluable resource that advocate on behalf of all writers, not just their own members.”
“Since we launched the Task Force, progress has been made; we are pleased that a few writers have been paid,” stated Mary Robinette Kowal, president, SFWA, in a release on May 11. “However, we do notice the difference in how the lower profile writers are being treated. We should not still be having the discussion about honoring their contracts.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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