Settlement is imminent on a curious, below-the-radar, case against the WGA which has been ongoing for four years and in which it’s alleged the WGA has made little effort to distribute foreign funds it has collected on behalf of member and non-member writers.
A class-action suit filed by writer and director William Richert alleged that millions of dollars collected by the WGA from the foreign re-use of writer’s work, hasn’t got to the writers concerned. The money isn’t the same as residuals and relates to the different status writers have as ‘authors’ in countries other than the US. In the US, full copyright in the writer’s work was held by the studio or producer, then in 1989, the US became signatories to the Berne Convention, which originated in 1886 and which European and other countries had already agreed to. This stated that writers remained the author of their work and so in the case of screenwriter’s, were entitled to part of the foreign levies.
Foreign levies are taxes collected from ancillary uses such as, video and DVD sales and rental, cable retransmissions, and indeed on blank VHS tapes and blank DVD’s. Until 1989, the levies went straight to the studios as owners of the work.
So, the WGA began collecting these monies from the foreign collection agencies, on behalf of writers, but found it difficult to redistribute it to the right members, and virtually impossible to find non-members who were eligible for payment. As of March this year, they had over $30m held in trust for members. The lawsuit alleges the WGA didn’t have the right to collect the money on behalf of its members in the first place, let alone non-members.
They’d kept the whole thing pretty much under wraps until in 2006 a staff member who looked after collecting the money and making the payments, went to federal investigators, concerned about irregularities and was subsequently fired in what they believe was for becoming a whistle blower.
The proposed settlement calls for the WGA to use ‘its best efforts’ to make all payments within three years, under scrutiny of independent accountants. The details of amounts collected are to be posted on the WGA website to remain for five years.
This could be the unexpected windfall writers have been waiting for.