“Dear Mickey: You Owe Me”

Star Wars (1977). Alien (1979). What do these two films have in common, besides the obvious fact that they are two long-running science-fiction franchises from the late 1970s that spawned a plenitude of sequels and adaptations across a variety of different media? The answer is the Hugo Award-nominated Alan Dean Foster (1946-), who wrote Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker (1976; ghost written as “George Lucas”), Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978), and Alien (1979), among a wealth of other works. Star Wars and Alien were novelizations of the films and constituted the first “extension” of those universes beyond the running time of the original films. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was a contingency plan, intended to be adapted as a low-budget sequel to the Star Wars film if it was a box- office disaster. Foster became well known and well regarded for his novelizations, contributing books to the Star Trek, Terminator, and Transformers series, and continuing his work in the Star Wars and Alien series, recently writing the novelizations for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Alien: Covenant (2017).

In 2012, The Walt Disney Company attained the rights to Foster’s Star Wars novels through their acquisition of Lucasfilm, and in 2019 the rights to his Alien novels were included in the company’s purchase of 20th Century Fox. Soon, Foster noticed that he was no longer receiving royalty payments for the works that had been sold to Disney. He wrote an open “Dear Mickey” letter about his love for Disney, asserting, despite this love, that:

All these books are all still very much in print. They still earn money. For you. When one company buys another, they acquire its liabilities as well as its assets. You’re certainly reaping the benefits of the assets. I’d very much like my minuscule (though it’s not small to me) share… You continue to ignore my legal representatives. I know this is what gargantuan corporations often do.  Ignore requests and inquiries hoping the petitioner will simply go away.  Or possibly die.  But I’m still here, and I am still entitled to what you owe me.  Including not to be ignored, just because I’m only one lone writer.  How many other writers and artists out there are you similarly ignoring?

On November 18, 2020, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) took what its president, Mary Robinette Kowal, referred to as the “unprecedented” step of publicly presenting Foster’s case, affirming the egregious breach of contract and suggesting that Disney has three options: “1. Pay Alan Dean Foster all back royalties as well as any future royalties. 2. Publication ceases until new contract(s) are signed, and pay all back royalties to Alan Dean Foster as well as any future royalties. 3. Publication ceases and pay all back royalties to Alan Dean Foster.” Disney argues that it purchased the rights of the contract, but not its obligations; in Kowal’s words, “they believe they have the right to publish work, but are not obligated to pay the writer no matter what the contract says. If we let this stand, it could set precedent to fundamentally alter the way copyright and contracts operate in the United States. All a publisher would have to do to break a contract would be to sell it to a sibling company. If they are doing this to Alan Dean Foster, one of the great science fiction writers of our time, then what are they doing to the younger writers who do not know that a contract is a contract?”

Disney has a long history of antagonistic relationships with authors. Bambi: Eine Lebensgeshichte aus dem Walde (1923; Bambi, a Life in the Woods) by Felix Salten was published in the US with no copyright statement in 1923, as none was required by German law. In the 1926 US republication, he included a US copyright notice, so the work was considered to be copyrighted in the US in 1926. In 1936, Salten sold the film rights to MGM producer Sidney Franklin, who then resold them to Walt Disney for the creation of the film adaptation Bambi (1942). Salten’s daughter inherited the novel’s copyright upon his death and renewed it in 1954, based on the 1926 copyright date established by the republication with notice. She came to an agreement with Disney regarding the book rights in 1958. When she died in 1977, the rights passed to her husband and children, who ultimately sold them in 1993 to the publishing house Twin Books. Twin Books and Disney disagreed on the terms of the 1958 agreement and took the matter to court. The US District Court for the Northern District of California determined that the work was in fact copyrighted in 1923, but because copyright law at the time provided for 28 years after initial copyright to complete renewal, the court considered the copyright to be expired in 1951 when Salten’s daughter failed to renew it, and ruled in favor of Disney. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the original decision based on the notion that the novel was a foreign work in 1923, and only attained US copyright when the specific 1926 notice was given, therefore making the renewal valid and extending the copyright until 2022. This ruling has been ridiculed by some experts, such as David Nimmer in the NYU Law Review, who used the example of a fictional ancient Greek work called the Iliac to suggest how the decision creates bizarre copyright loopholes: “Given that publication of the Iliac over the last three millennia has not been accompanied by the formality, ‘© 650 B.C.E. by Achilles,’ plaintiff maintains that the copyright term did not begin to run and therefore that this was a work protected by common law copyright.” Thus through overlitigation, new precedents are established that risk harming the publishing industry and the writers upon whose talents the industry depends.

So what now, will come of Foster’s plea to be paid? It will certainly set a major precedent for royalty payments in the publishing industry, regardless of whether it reaches the courts, as Twin Books Corporation v. Walt Disney Company did. SFWA’s wise decision to act will certainly bolster Foster’s chances, but as the story of Salten’s Bambi shows, Mickey is willing to spar until the very end. For more information on Foster, check out his Press Conference with SFWA, read his monthly column “Perceivings,” and keep an eye out for his forthcoming book The Director Should’ve Shot You from Centipede Press, which traces the history of his involvement with film and television novelizations, from Luana (1973) to Alien: Covenant.  

Connor Towle, Content Standards Manager, Layman Poupard