Thursday, October 22, 2015

Creators Wronged

I think I may have come up with a plot for a mystery novel. If you’re a freelance writer skimming Elance or Craigslist for work, you’ll come across ads from people who’ll pay you to write stories for them. For a flat fee, you produce anywhere from 1000 to 30,000 words, which your client can then do whatever they want with—run it on their blog, sell it, self-pub it under their byline. In some cases the client provides the plot and characters; in other ads, this much input from the buyer isn’t mentioned. You write a story, you get paid, which is how it’s supposed to work.

The trouble with this scenario is, you have no rights to your work. You agree to give those to the client in exchange for an agreed-upon sum. This is known as “work for hire.” Remember that term.

Here’s what I got to thinking: suppose you answered one of these ads and wrote a romance novel. You whip out 30,000 words of steamy passion, whipped cream and Brazil nuts and receive $1000 for your efforts. Actually, that’s not bad. I think it’s more than my last release through my publisher earned. Here’s another term to remember: “self-promotion.”

Then your client turns around and sells your work, now their work, to a publisher. And against all odds, it takes off. You didn’t know it at the time, but you wrote the next 50 Shades. Checks with lots of zeros on them are fired off to the “writer’s” bank account. Agents and publishers who’ve rejected your work for years are now falling all over each other, trying to sign the Next Big Bestselling Author. If the writer milks this puppy right, they’ll never have to write another thing.

You? You’ve got your thousand bucks, no rights to the story you wrote, and no legal leg to stand on, all of which you agreed to when you signed the contract. Sure, go ahead, make a stink. See what it gets you. You’ll be laughed out of court.

(Disclaimer: this isn’t the same as working with a book packager. Usually the packager provides the background, characters and general plot they want to see fleshed out. The flesh-out part is what they pay the writer for. Everybody knows this going in. Some writers even get royalties for writing licensed properties. It all depends on the kind of deal you or your agent negotiates.)

Back at my plotline, the “author” is found murdered. The writer who raised all the ruckus is suddenly the number-one suspect. The rest of the book would be the hapless writer trying to clear their name by rooting out the real killer. These are the stories my brain comes up with when I’m not keeping a closer eye on it.

Dunno if I’ll ever write this. I haven’t decided yet. Here’s a variation you can use if you want, ripped from Real Life: the plight of comic book writers and artists currently getting the shaft.

Comic books heroes are big business in movies and TV these days. Disney (owner of Marvel) and Time-Warner (owner of DC) are cashing in big time. Because that’s not all they own. They own those characters up on the screen, the ones that got their start in comic books. The characters created by writers and artists who don’t see a penny of the millions their brainchildren are raking in.

For an easy example, let’s take the Avengers. Almost all those characters were created or co-created by legendary artist Jack Kirby. Iron Man? Kirby. Thor and Loki? Kirby. The Hulk? Kirby. Captain America? Kirby, all the way back in the 1940s. Before he became a spy, Nick Fury starred in a war comic set in WWII, drawn by three guesses who. I’m not sure who created Hawkeye and the Black Widow, but they first appeared in the Iron Man strip.

I don’t recall seeing Kirby’s name in the credits of the Avengers movie, or in the credits of any of the films that led up to it. I didn’t see Chris Claremont or John Byrne’s names in the credits for any of the X-Men films either, and at least two of those drew their plots directly from the comics. (Also missing was Kirby’s name; he co-created the X-Men.) The billions earned by those characters and stories are going into the pockets of everyone except the writers who initially created them.

Why? Because up until around the 1960s and ‘70s, comic books were cheap, disposable entertainment for kids. The artists and writers who produced them did so as work-for-hire. In those days the paychecks came with a stamp on the back, a contract whereby the worker agreed to waive all rights to their work. If you wanted your money you signed on the dotted line and gave up your rights to whatever you created. Which they did. It was just a comic book. Who knew?

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster didn’t know. They sold the rights to Superman for $130 back in the 1940s. Their heirs have since won judgments from DC/Time-Warner, but it took decades of legal wrangling. Ditto for Kirby's estate, which recently settled with Marvel. Sometimes there’s a measure of justice.

And sometimes it just gets ridiculous. Check out this article on Alan Brennert, who accidentally created an important (and lucrative) character in one of his Batman stories. Go ahead and read it. I’ll be here when you get back.


Nuts, huh? We’re talking $45 here. Chump change to a behemoth like Time-Warner. I guess they don’t want to set a precedent. Imagine if they paid out royalties to everybody who deserved them. Why, someone in a corner office might have to forego a new Porsche. Or (shudder) send their kids to public school.

The moral of the story is, if you’re a writer, artist, singer, or anyone else in the arts, read your contracts carefully. If you see the words “work for hire” run, do not walk, to the exit. Nobody knows what’s going to become huge somewhere down the line. Wouldn’t you rather be the one who owns the rights to it?

Now I have to decide if I want to write that murder mystery. What the hell, NaNoWriMo’s coming up.


Savanna Kougar said...

Interesting stuff... yeah, that's one reason I've never sold anything that way... I own the rights to everything I've written... however, since I don't OWN the power-promo of the Entertainment Industrial Complex, it ultimately won't matter... 'cause, bottom line, these conglomerates only want what they can steal and/or dupe a writer out of... ultimately, it doesn't matter how good your stories are... yes, you can achieve a certain measure of good success, if you stay at a certain level... but 'they, Disney,etc.' will never allow anyone to succeed, who they don't ultimately control... plus, manuscripts and screen plays have been stolen outright from authors, who have to fight like hell to get anything at all. Like the woman who originally wrote the Terminator script.

Pat C. said...

I thought Terminator was plagiarized from Harlan Ellison's story "Soldier," which became an Outer Limits episode. Harlan did sue. And won. Or at least got a hefty settlement. If you look at any recording of The Terminator after a certain date, there's a note at the end right before the credits that reads, "Acknowledgement made to the works of Harlan Ellison." So sometimes the good guys win.

Savanna Kougar said...

While that is evidently true. there's a woman author... dang, I've forgotten her name, who has also sued, and did get some bit o' compensation... I don't know the latest in the court battle, however she gave her screenplay manuscript to cameron's assistant... who said they'd get back to her, and they never did... but kept her manuscript... and she can prove both the Terminator and the Matrix was the story she wrote.

Pat C. said...

And here's a tale from comic book writer Gerry Conway:

(by the way, two weeks after posting this Conway apologized to DC)

Savanna Kougar said...

So why did he apologize... seems to me he's right on the money.

Savanna Kougar said...

Here's what I found doing a quick search on the web... I heard Sophia talking about her situation at least two times on internet radio shows.

The Original Writer of The Matrix and The Terminator Is A Black Woman
Posted: February 17, 2014

It looks like ANOTHER example in a long, long history of WHITE THEFT of black intellectual property, which includes inventions, music, dance, and, yes, novels that are turned into screenplays and mega-franchises.

I heard about this story several years ago and fully expected it to be swept under the rug–FOREVER. I’m pleased to see Ms. Sophia Stewart is STILL bravely fighting such a powerful industry (and enemy) and that she is still alive AND breathing.

(CORRECTION: I sent out an email earlier today that reported Ms Stewart won a 2.5 billion-dollar settlement but that was false. The court battle is still ongoing).

A recap of her journey (excerpted from poptopictvonline)

“Stewart filed her case in 1999, after viewing the Matrix, which she felt had been based on her manuscript, ‘The Third Eye,’ copyrighted in 1981. In the mid-eighties Stewart had submitted her manuscript to an ad placed by the Wachowski Brothers, requesting new sci-fi works.

According to court documentation, an FBI investigation discovered that more than thirty minutes had been edited from the original film, in an attempt to avoid penalties for copyright infringement. The investigation also stated that ‘credible witnesses employed at Warner Brothers came forward, claiming that the executives and lawyers had full knowledge that the work in question did not belong to the Wachowski Brothers.’

These witnesses claimed to have seen Stewart’s original work and that it had been ‘often used during preparation of the motion pictures.’ The defendants tried, on several occasions, to have Stewart’s case dismissed, without success.

Stewart has confronted skepticism on all sides, much of which comes from Matrix fans, who are strangely loyal to the Wachowski Brothers (and their counterfeit — my words) Matrix & Terminator franchises.”

The_Matrix_PosterThe Matrix movie — screenplay stolen from a novel

To echo her 2004 press release:

“The Matrix & Terminator movie franchises have made world history and have ultimately changed the way people view movies and how Hollywood does business, yet the real truth about the creator and creation of these films continue to elude the masses because the hidden secret of the matter is that these films were created and written by a Black woman… a Black woman named Sophia Stewart. But Hollywood does not want you to know this fact simply because it would change history.”

(Since the story was reported, it was stated that the information that she had already won was false. But the fact does remain it is an on-going case and she did win the right to proceed with her suit).