29
May
09

I Have No Residuals, And I Must Scream

city talking ornaIn 1967, the year Bob Dylan might say I was busy being born, the irascible, well-liked-round-these-parts television and novel writer Harlan Ellison handed in the script for the monumental Star Trek episode City On The Edge Of Forever.  That bit of time-travel procedural work went on to become one of the most celebrated stories in all of episodic TV, winning Ellison copious awards and royalties while generating millions in revenues for Paramount, the series producer.

Yet a lawsuit filed by Ellison in March of this year claims that not all of what’s coming to him got there.  The plucky scribe, never shy with a court filing, sued Paramount after he went shopping for paperbacks and tchotchkies and found some interesting items on the shelves.

Ellison discovered for sale a paperback book trilogy based on his City script, published by Simon & Schuster (Paramount’s sister corporation).  He also found a City talking Christmas ornament (pictured).  He discovered these, as it reads in the lawsuit “as a mere consumer” meaning nobody told him his characters, situations, words and premises were out there earning new dollars – and that his rightful share of those dollars was being withheld.

I would have liked to have been in the aisle with him, perhaps at Barnes and Noble, able to hear what it sounds like to have a stream of innovative profanity drown out a talking Christmas ornament.

Paramount is a licensing juggernaut, raking in billions worldwide on such Star Trek products, which is why it takes the clout of a labor union to ensure the creators of these properties are paid when the Paramount is paid for the right to make these things.

But something is amiss.  That labor union, the Writers Guild of America is also being sued by Ellison (if only to the tune of one dollar in damages).  Ellison’s suit claims the WGA failed to stand up for his right to be compensated for these and any other products that derive from his 1967 script.  More than this, he claims the Guild actively avoided his grievance and acted not in the interest of the writer, but on behalf of the studio, ultimately quashing his attempts to get an accounting and payment.

Ellison has his suspicions as to why.  Referring in the lawsuit (text available here) to the 2007 WGA writers’ strike and the writer’s criticism of that strike’s settlement, Ellison says he “publicly noted the sea-change occurring in the nature of the entertainment industry, and suggested that the WGA Members would not be  well-served by the outcome of the negotiations that led to the current collective bargaining agreement…those  charged with responding to his demand for arbitration on the City matter, were or became hostile to Ellison and this unwarranted hostility and/or discrimination was one of the unlawful reasons the WGA failed to pursue relief…”

Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy that a writer who criticizes his union during a strike negotiation will come to be badly served by its alleged inaction later?  Or is this development one more drop in a sea of evidence that institutional bias is on the rise in nearly every area of endeavor and corporate interests are are displacing everyone else’s?

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