02 May 2004

This Isn't an Argument; This Is Abuse

I see that the triennial posturing between the film and TV studios on the one hand and the Writer's Guild of America (West) has finally begun in earnest. WGA members simply don't know how good they have it. Neither, for that matter, do the movie studios. Perhaps most revealing in this article is this passage:

In a recent mailing to members, the union said a typical DVD sells for $16. The studios make a $10.55 profit on the sale, while writers get 5 cents, the union said. Producers concede they have reaped millions of dollars from home video sales and that DVDs have become a major source of revenue. They argue that on the TV side, DVD revenue is merely replacing money that had come from international markets that have dried up, syndication deals and licensing fees that had been increased after shows became hits.

Id. (fake paragraphing removed for clarity). If DVD revenue is "merely replacing" declining sales in another market segment, then there should be no argument. The proportion of compensation should be transparently transferred to the new sales method. But wait… that would require that the two sides even agree on the underlying accounting methods. Given that no two accountants even within the same studio can agree on accounting methods, that's about as likely as a balanced federal budget for next year—with many of the same problems. Note also, though, the critical word in that passage. It appears twice.

"the union said"

"the union said"

There is no union for print authors that is worth a damn. The "National Writer's Union" is a mere trade association; it has no collective bargaining power, no disciplinary authority, and no right to do either. The same goes for all other associations of freelance authors.

This leads to a modest proposal. Let's assume that the "writer's union" really is harming the studios with unreasonable demands (the demands aren't unreasonable—merely the negotiating tactics). How, then, can the studios undercut union power and turn things into the kind of free-for-all with essentially adhesive contracts one finds in print publishing? Well, can we do anything to limit union membership? Hmm. Are unions open to management (flip, flip, flip)? No, it doesn't look like it. One can usually claim, at least with a straight face, that independent contractors are "management," not "employees." So, what can we do to make clear that the writers aren't employees?

<SARCASM> I know! We can stop treating screenplays as works for hire! Since the definition in § 101 groups screenplays with works produced by employees in the scope of their duties, that should do the trick! </SARCASM> Oops. Wait a minute. That means we'll actually have to respect the authors' copyrights… including creative control, derivative rights, sequelization rights, the right to revise… naaaah. Not going to happen.