Sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster claims that Disney owes him royalties dating back to 2012, but does buying his contract obligate them to pay for his work?
A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, contracts actually meant something. An author, for example, would write a story, and a publishing house would exchange money for the author’s work. A contract, signed by everyone concerned, made it legal. The publisher would then sell copies of the story to an adoring public, recouping the investment and making a profit. Everybody won. Readers could travel, without leaving home, to planets lightyears away, hearts soaring as the rebel fighters pulled out another win against the Evil Empire. Publishers made a name for themselves as trusted gatekeepers of quality entertainment. Authors were able to keep themselves in cheese sandwiches as they wrote the next book. Unfortunately, however, popular sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster is running out of cheese, and he wants the Mouse to pay up.
In 2012, the Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm, the studio that brought Star Wars to legions of starstruck sci-fi fans in 1977. In 1976, Alan Dean Foster served as the ghostwriter for George Lucas, cranking out not only the novelization for the iconic original film, but also the 1978 sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. These books are “still very much in print,” according to an open letter Foster addressed to Disney, but he says they haven’t paid him since they took ownership of Lucasfilm’s assets.
It gets worse. In 2019, Disney assimilated 21st Century Fox. Not only did they absorb the film and TV studios and significant stakes in media properties from National Geographic to Hulu, they also acquired the rights to the novelizations of Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3, all of which were written by Alan Dean Foster. And no, they’re not paying him the royalties he’s looking for on these titles either, he says.
Foster, who is 74 and suffering from advanced cancer, tried reaching out to the Mouse House previously, and claims they wanted him to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they’d talk with him. He struck back, filing a grievance with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), a nonprofit professional and advocacy organization. SFWA President Mary Robinette Kowal, who took the unprecedented step of publicizing the grievance, expressed concern that if Disney would stiff Alan Dean Foster, who she calls “one of the great science fiction writers of our time,” then how are they treating younger, less famous writers? Regardless of whether they continue publishing Foster’s work, Kowal says that Disney must honor its obligations and pay Foster all back royalties due to him.
Disney claims that they’ve been negotiating with Foster and his agent for a year concerning the Alien titles, but were not aware of any grievance with royalties from the Star Wars books, and merely requested that the negotiations be confidential. I find their answer vague and unconvincing.
According to Kowal, however, Disney claims that when they purchased Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox, they procured the rights but not the obligations associated with contracts like those signed by Alan Dean Foster. Anyone of conscience should find their lack of good faith disturbing. If this situation is allowed to stand, it would set a far-reaching precedent that fundamentally changes the way contracts operate under United States law. Disney, however, is no stranger to changing the way copyright works, lobbying Congress to change the law any time Mickey is in danger of slipping into the public domain.
Time is limited for Foster, though, who wonders if Disney is simply waiting for him to die so they don’t have to write a check.