The Writer's Share (The Donahue Lecture)
50 Pages Posted: 2 May 2017 Last revised: 31 May 2017
Date Written: May 2, 2017
The Writers Guild of America, West (WGA or Writers Guild), the union that represents Hollywood film and television writers, has waged a major fight about payment for re-use of the writers’ work every time technology changed the way that screen entertainment was distributed. In the early 1950s, the Writers Guild negotiated that the movie and television production companies would make a “residual” payment to the credited writer of a film (and later a TV episode) whenever the film or TV episode was reissued or rebroadcast after its initial run. The stakes in this longstanding struggle have grown as Hollywood moved ever more toward the freelance model of intermittent work punctuated by periods of unemployment. The more technology enabled reuse of work, the more tenuous writers’ long-term career prospects became, and, therefore, the more writers’ economic security depended on being paid for later uses of their work. Disputes over sharing the revenue generated by reuse of films and television episodes have been the source of labor unrest in Hollywood from the 1940s through the long 2007-2008 writers’ strike, and the issue arose again in the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement to take effect in May 2017.
The Writers Guild was crucial in overcoming the considerable collective action and administrative challenges in creating this novel form of intellectual property and deferred compensation. Residuals are a collectively bargained benefit to which all credited writers are entitled, regardless of their bargaining power or the amount of their salary or the script fee paid for their work. This article explains the early history of residuals. It also points out that the Guild’s early proposals for compensation for re-use would have avoided some of the problems that exist in the current system. In particular, the mind-bogglingly complex system that exists today was the Guild’s fallback position when the studios resisted a much simpler system – that today is advocated as the desirable reform – of paying talent a percentage of all of a project’s gross revenue from all platforms.
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