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The Hollywood Writers' Strike

(Disclaimer: I am not a Hollywood scriptwriter. Hollywood scriptwriters are unionized, work in someone else's office, and get paid on a collectively negotiated basis. I, in contrast, am a freelance novelist. I'm not a trades union member. And I don't write scripts. On the other hand ...)

Write Right now, the scriptwriters are on strike. They're not striking because they want more money, but because the big studios they work for want to cut off their residuals. That is: when you write a script you get paid some money, and when the TV program is eventually made and broadcast you get a bit more money, and when it's turned into a DVD you get some additional money (residuals) or when it's converted to some other medium and made available again. Forget "information wants to be free", this is how these folks make their living. Now Viacom and the other large studios are telling the authors that they don't deserve to get any money for internet rights to their work, because the internet rights are merely used to promote the TV shows and are of no commercial value. (Meanwhile, they're suing YouTube for a billion dollars for using their TV shows, and their CEO says the internet rights to their IP portfoilio are set to earn $500M this year.)

To quote SFWA's statement on the strike: "It's as if book publishers of the early twentieth century had told authors that movies would be made out of their books, but they shouldn't get any money because the movies wouldn't be profitable and were being made just to promote the sale of books."

Here, courtesy of the Daily Show's scriptwriters, is the best summary of the situation to date:

Finally, in case you were wondering what my position on this is, in view of my expressed preference for giving away content on the internet where possible: there's a big difference between choosing to give something away, and having it taken without your consent. I support the right of Writers Guild of America members to be paid for their work — or rather, I deplore the extremely ugly land-grab approach of the studios who are trying to bilk the very people they depend on for their viability. After all, nobody watches the Daily Show because of the company that broadcasts it. Right?

45 Comments

1:

The part where the corporate fatcat attempts to buy for zero and sell for a billion is brilliant.

I think the days of one guy who creates the joke (software, image, book) and one guy who *helps* him collect the money for it are coming to a very slow end. Especially if the co-money collectors expect everything to be initially created on spec.

That ‘pixel stained techno peasant’ guy was dweebish but a less ALARMIST interpretation of his point speaks to the other half of this equation. Know the value of what you give away because there are billion dollar multi national corps, as well as mom and pop publishers that are more than willing to sell what you make and let you starve.

2:

All of the media companies -- TV, movies, music -- are more than a little shady IMO. They have been since the beginning.

I hope publishing is a bit more honest. :)

3:

IIRC, Howard Hendrix's argument more or less boiled down to "if you give it away for free, you are lowering the selling price for all of us." I remember disagreeing with the argument at the time because I thought the idea that all writers' works were fungible was fallacious.

Having said that, one of the reasons people have rights to the works they create is so that they have a say in distribution. If people want to give their own works away for free, they should have the right to do that. If people want to insist on payment for their works, they should have the right to that. However, someone else should not have the right to take their works on terms they don't agree to.

4:

John -- I guess we are still talking about two disparate situations. My point was just that they seem to raise the same questions:

What is the value of web content?
What is the value of a *union* in getting an audience to pay?
How much of getting paid is about the individual creator? The work? Stimulating demand?

5:

But the strike isn't about getting an audience to pay. It's about getting the writers' bosses to pay.

(Howard Hendrix, on the other hand, was talking about getting an audience to pay.)

6:

And the 'bosses' get their money from... ???

7:

I can't help it. I saw the word "unionized", I wondered if there were ionized writers.

And no. The media conglomerates are _never_ the reason I watch a show. They are, if anything, the reason I watch very few shows.

8:

What do writers get when the scripts they write don't get made into movies? Do they give back the money they were paid when they sold it the first time? Or does the studio eat the cost?

So riddle me this, writers get paid when they sell the script, they get paid again when the script is made into movies, they lose nothing if they wrote crap and nothing is made. Man, that's a really sweet deal! Heads they win; tails, they don't lose!

9:

Nothing like a long string of expletives to really bring some class to your argument! I thought they're writers; don't they know how to write without resorted to bleeps?

10:

UnionsAreForLazyPeople is absolutely right! Writers are the only people who make money from property without putting in any additional work.

Imagine, if you will, I had a whole pile of money lying around. I might buy a "share" in a corporation. If the value of that corporation increased, I'd make money! Without doing any additional work!

I might use some of that money to buy a house, and then charge people "rent" to live there. I might use a portion of that "rent" to pay someone to do all the work in managing that property. I'd make money without doing any work!

Fortunately, those kinds of things never happen in America or Europe, and that's why the writers are wrong.

11:

I'm glad to see someone being a bit ambivalent about this. I'm ambivalent myself, though in a different direction. I'm not normally any fan of strikes; it seems to me that labor unions are what economists call rent-seeking organizations, gaining increased income from coercively preventing other people from competing for their jobs, whether through laws that grant them an exclusive right to control access to a certain type of work, or through unorganized private violence against strikebreakers. On the other hand, what this particular union is apparently asking for in this particular strike—getting royalties on Internet distribution of their work that are large enough to be worth noticing—doesn't strike me as an unreasonable thing to ask for.

12:

Re: 7 -- "...I saw the word 'unionized', I wondered if there were ionized writers...."

Yes, there are, Randy Bradakis. I'm glad that you asked me. This leads to the Litero-Physics of how unionized writers become ionized writers. This process is known as Writer Ionization.

Writer Ionization is the physical process of converting an atomic (solo) or molecular (co-authored) writer into an ionized writer by changing the difference between the number of plotons (the heavy particles of plot) and selectrons (the non-heavy particles of selecting words, atmosphere, character, and other non-plot decisions; not to be confused with Selectric typewriters).

This process of Writer Ionization works slightly differently depending on whether a story, book, play, film, television episode, or digital medium product with a positive (profitable) or a negative (unprofitable) eclectric charge is being produced. A positive eclectric charge is produced when a monitization bond to an atomic or molecular writer absorbs enough energy from an external source (readership, audience) to escape from the eclectric potential barrier that originally confined it, where the amount of monitization energy required is called the Writer Ionization potential. A negative eclectric charge is produced when a free selectron collides with an atomic or molecular writer and is subsequently caught inside the eclectric potential barrier, releasing any excess monitization energy. As you know, Randy, by bond, of course, I include stock, commodity, or other compensation instrument.

Hence the question asked of any writer, especially after the First Publication event: is he (or she) living up to his (or her) potential?

Writer Ionization can generally be broken down into two types: Sequential Writer Ionization and Non-Sequential Writer Ionization. In classical litero-physics, only Sequential Writer Ionization can take place. Non-Sequential Writer Ionization (involving non-sequential literature, cf. interactive media, webisode, blog) and violates several laws of classical litero-physics and thus will be discussed in more detail in my Quantum Writer Ionization paper, forthcoming, for those of you who have Quantum Computer laptops on which to read it.

Tunnel writer ionization is writer ionization due to quantum tunneling. In classical writer ionization a selectron must have enough monitization energy to make it over the potential barrier, but quantum tunneling allows the selectron simply to go through the potential barrier instead of going all the way over it because of the wave nature of the selectron. This is related to how much money is being waved at the writer. The probability of a selectron tunneling through the barrier drops off exponentially with the width of the potential barrier. Therefore, a selectron with a higher monitization energy can make it further up the potential barrier, leaving a much thinner barrier to tunnel through and thus a greater chance to do so. But there is enhanced risk of carpal tunneling syndrome.

Please understand that this has little to do with becoming a lionized writer. That's another matter altogether.

13:

Wow, #10, such a wonderful use of sarcasm on a such a flawed argument! In your examples, you described instances where the person bought and/or invested money into a property with appreciable value and the property raised in value. But by definition, the writer sold their work. Instead, it's the studio who bought that property and carried the risk of its success or failure. So shouldn't they be the one to benefit from it? If the writer wanted to share in a bigger part of the work's eventual success, perhaps, they should have kept control of it and carry that risk for themselves?? Such a wonderful argument, too bad you were arguing it for the wrong side!! Nice try, though.

Based on what you said, I have you pegged one of those artsy-fartsy types like a writer!?!? Problem with artsy people is they usually stand in the opposite extreme of the spectrum from logical people. You have to be somewhat smart to be logical because anyone can just make stuff up! Granted, you can make good stuff up or bad stuff up but you're still making stuff up in the end. And, it's not like you're writing Shakespeare. In fact, a lot of the writing out there are based on the same stories that were written centuries ago by people who wrote for the sake of writing? Are you going to share your big fat residual checks with those greats from long ago?

So the conclusion is *BUZZER!!* Not quite, try again! I'm still hopeful that someone can give me a good argument that WGA are not being greedy.

I just read that they're headed back to the negotiation table but too bad they didn't say which side caved!

14:

William H @11: you are mistaken. What they're campaigning for is to retain an existing right of their members, that the employers are trying to remove.

I'm no huge fan of unions myself, but the scriptwriter's union serves a vital purpose insofar as it enables writers (who usually work on their own or, in scriptwriting, in very small groups) to negotiate terms and conditions with huge media behemoths (whose behaviour in other fields is barely one step removed from gangsterism). I suspect that without the union, the terms and conditions under which scriptwriters are employed would go through the floor very fast indeed, in a race to the bottom driven by a corporate bottom line that is totally uninterested in keeping the scriptwriters going.

In my line of work -- which is not unionized -- I am nevertheless dealing with somewhat smaller corporate entities and there are competing customers. It's still a very tough field to get a toe-hold in, but once you're publishing and have a following, you can -- if you want -- go to a different publisher. But in Hollywood, there are very few studios commissioning work, and, oddly, if one of them dumps you the others don't want to know your name. It's very close to being a monopsony (a market dominated by a single huge buyer, as opposed to a single huge supplier).

Which brings me to comment #13 by UnionsAreForLazyPeople -- your whole argument presupposes that Hollywood is a free market. It ain't. From the point of view of its suppliers -- the writers -- it's a monopsony, and from the point of view of its customers -- you, me, and the world -- it's a monopoly. This is a toxic combination; commutative market-based arguments ("if the script is so good, why don't the writers market it themselves?") don't work because the writers are locked out of the distribution chain that the studios have a death grip on. (And if you don't refrain from ad hominem attacks on other board members, I'll ban you and delete your posts. Consider this a first and final warning.)

15:

And while we're on the subject, here's the Hollywood defense: Writers are greedy jerks who hate you.

16:

Don't know why I'm still responding, I've lost interest already. They're striking to expand on the rights that they have. The studios are not taking anything away, as far as I know.

Actually, I, as a customer, don't think Hollywood is a monopoly at all. I can choose to not watch their stuff and I have. Most of the stuff that are put out has more guns, and guts than a good story. Unfortunately, Hollywood still proliferates because not enough people know the difference between good movies and bad and are willing to stop going.

I guess if I got the blog author to to weigh in, I had better shape up. Mr. Stross, you can delete my posts if you like, I'm just responding to sarcasm with more sarcasm. Perhaps, I could've done it in less heavy-handed way but I was only pointing out that his arguments was illogical -- I don't really care all that much.

All in all, as a TV watcher, I can care less about who's paying whom for how much -- I just want my shows back on TV. But from my perspective, the studios didn't stop making the shows, the writers did. But everything in the news is about unionized writers that are being treated wrong and it just seems backwards. Then, from what I've read, because of this, other people are getting fired and laid off right before the holidays. I don't know those people, and I can care less about them.

I never said they should market the scripts themselves; I said that they should make the movies. Can they be locked out of that too, if they have a good movie? How do independent film makers do it?

Thanks for teaching me a new word, "ad hominem," I had to go look it up. It was fun to argue for a while, but I'm not going to debate this, ad nauseam

17:

The root of this problem is in the way deals are structured in Hollywood. When you sell a script to a studio, you give away all copyright. This is made possible with a document called a "work-for-hire" agreement, which states that you wrote this property while employed for the studio, therefore turning you into an employee and allowing them to claim ownership over all rights to your work. Even if you wrote the script on spec, this "work-for-hire" agreement gives the studio all rights. Hollywood writers would be better advised to put their energies into ending this system. If they retained copyright and licensed their work instead, they'd be guaranteed royalties like book authors and songwriters are. The unions have no incentive to push for this, because they can only represent writers when they are employees and so need these "work-for-hire" agreements.

18:

I'm betting UAFLP will come back.

Let's say you're right: Writers are selling the scripts outright. I'm not sure that's the case -- intellectual property rights are tricky things -- but let's say the writers are working on work-for-hire, and they sold the rights to their works outright.

This strike is simply the writers saying: We don't like the terms the studios are offering. We're not working for them anymore unless they pay us more.

Gasoline around here costs nearly $3 a gallon. I've been looking and looking for place that will sell me gas for $1 a gallon, and nobody's going to do it. I guess that means all the gas station owners are lazy union members, huh?

19:

As far as I can tell, the problem here is that the writers (like studios etc) usually get a cut of the payment when something is broadcast etc. But this time the studios etc are charging people to use the stuff that they produce, but not wanting to give any of that money to the writers who wronte the stuff for the show. Yet it has always been the case that they have gotten a cut from it before, but now the new media stuff has come along the studios are trying to ensure they get a bigger cut of the pie at the expense of the writers.

So what was unionsareforlazypeople's point?

20:

Guthrie, I think that unionsareforlazypeople may well be a closet Objectivist, or failing that, a libertarian who hasn't ever been mugged by a large corporation.

21:

Hey, do't give away my next question for them!

Its amazing how many people don't look at things on the basis of power, who has it and what it is being used for.

22:

Mitch, here is a very elaborate explanation of how "work-for-hire" operates in Hollywood. This blogger defends it as he says it keeps the union involved but I don't completely buy his argument.

http://artfulwriter.com/archives/2005/12/reprint-we-dont.html

23:

Guthrie: Its amazing how many people don't look at things on the basis of power, who has it and what it is being used for.

It's also amazing how people are socialized to empathize with the powerful.

(It seems to be especially pernicious in the US, where many decades of anti-socialist propaganda have driven home a cultural ethos that little guys who organize for mutual defense are scoundrels who want to rob the commonweal; the American Dream of getting rich through hard work and dogged determination also comes into play, because it's a beautiful propaganda gambit for getting the naive and innocent to empathize with millionaire industrialists.)

24:

Yes, you'd think they had learnt it from somewhere, how to create a society in which the poor know their place in the good and accepted way of doing things where these poor well born people have their burden....

*looks southwards*

25:

Screenwriter Kung Fu Monkey gives the essential facts on the strike here:

http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/11/albatross.html

Without knowledge, discussion is pretty pointless.

26:

I read an article an while ago on the rise of "human resources" departments, which contained the gem (by a senior thinker in the field) that HR was created to make middle-class workers feel special while the management diddled them (no nasty union reps for them, etc). Words to that effect, anyway. I think the empathising with the rich is an extension of the same concept.

27:

Unfortunately, The Daily Show is probably the *only* popular TV show currently counteracting the propaganda Charlie quotes @23. (Not counting Keith Olbermann.)

The people who'll miss it most probably already side with the strikers. Not an ideal situation for the writers.

As for UAFLP, I spent five happy years arguing with dozens like him on alt.nuke.the.USA before realizing that trying to educate/reform the ignorant masses of Usenet was, indeed, an infinite effort sink. (Still couldn't hold back a smile at seeing him spanked by the Stross, though.)

28:

Unions can be a very powerful source of benefit for their members as well as for the company itself. From the perspective of management, it's useful to have a single organization to deal with and a clear set of rules (contract) rather than having to deal with hundreds or thousands of independent agents.

However, as with any sort of organization they can become a detriment. It happens from time to time that a union becomes entrenched, and ends up hurting both the company and it's members. Usually when there's technological change, and they don't adapt to it (not the case here).

And just to stick up for large corporations, in my experience small businesses often treat their workers worse. Favoritism, nepotism, low pay, poor benefits, over work, unpredictable future...

Fortunately in the US, while unions are relatively weak there's a great deal of labor mobility to compensate. In most industries there's a constant demand for talented workers, which allows people to leave businesses that take advantage of them.

29:

Charlie, part of the reason for the historic weakness of unions and socialism in the US was that industrial workers made up a small percentage of the economy compared to agriculture. And most farmers in the US were land owners rather than tenants. There were attempts to make a farm-labor political alliance based on class, but the interests of the two groups were too far apart.

Without FDR & the Great Depression, the US would be even more anti-labor and economically laissez faire than it is today.

30:

Speaking as a thoroughgoing enthusiast for laissez-faire:

Coltrane, the studios' practice of buying copyrights in scripts outright is only possible because the studios own the distribution channels through which all movies and TV shows must pass to reach a paying viewer, and there are so few studios that they can collaborate and blackball any writer who tries to keep copyrights. That's what Charlie meant by calling the studios a monopsony. (Cartel would be a more familiar word, perhaps?)

But the subtext of this strike is the common knowledge, among all the parties in Hollywood, that broadband Internet service is potentially a new distribution channel, which the studios don't, and almost certainly can't, control. Both the studios' position that streaming video is "promotional material" that writers don't get paid for, and the writers' desire for higher residuals on DVDs, are anticipating the Internet's effects on the movie business.

The point is that the studios are being short-sighted, in the classic manner of old, large, well-established corporations. Their cartel is about to break open; yet they continue to treat the writers as if there were not, and could not be, any alternative to dealing with them.

And again, as one in favor of laissez faire: I couldn't be happier. Hollywood happens to be a major world source of anti-free market propaganda -- I suppose, because everyone in the industry assumes the market in other parts of the economy works the same way their part does, and in their part business is one step up from naked extortion. The House of Saud bankrolls Wahhabi clerics for similar reasons, and to somewhat similar effect ...

31:

It occurs to me that the big difference between Charlie as a writer and a scriptwriter is that Charlie does almost all the work. We can say the the editor, and the cover artist, make a contribution, but the end product wouldn't exist without Charlie.

Hollywood is the way it is because it needs hundreds of people to make the manuscript-equivalent, and nobody thought it possible to make a royalty system work for something that complicated. And residuals are the intermediate solution, between royalties and salaries, for the people with a strong creative element to their work.

And Hollywood differs from Detroit because its product, expensive to "design", is still cheap to "make".

But so are books. How much do you pay for a book? And how much for a new Ford or Chrysler?

32:

broadband Internet service is potentially a new distribution channel, which the studios don't, and almost certainly can't, control.

Huh? Time Warner owns a cable network. In combination with the other studios, they own virtually all existing content. Of course they can strike deals with the few remaining major broadband providers (what are there, half a dozen left in the US?). Those deals will look something like the this: We'll provide access to our content libraries if you don't provide access to any programming produced by any independents.

That's what Universal's whole stink over iTunes was all about. They were making plenty of money off of the iTunes deal, but Apple was ultimately calling the shots as the distribution channel. No way was the content kleptocracy going to give up any of its control of distribution. Not gonna happen.

33:

My take on Hollywood is that -- like the major label music industry -- their behaviour is unethical to such an extreme that it's only one step removed from that of gangsters. I'm not naive enough to expect racketeering and corruption investigations, but if they were on the receiving end of such there'd be enough dirt to dig them all grave-deep.

Their mere existence ought to be enough to give libertarians pause to reconsider the drawbacks of a free market system bereft of effective regulatory oversight -- because that's what gave rise to them.

34:

Those deals will look something like the this: We'll provide access to our content libraries if you don't provide access to any programming produced by any independents.

Considering the "common carrier" rule, which says telecom providers are not responsible for data sent through their channels, how could deals like that be enforced? And why would the broadband providers agree to them?

Their mere existence ought to be enough to give libertarians pause to reconsider the drawbacks of a free market system bereft of effective regulatory oversight --

Not at all. Hollywood's business practices ought to give libertarians pause because access to the things it produces is not well modeled by property rights, and that breaks the libertarian assumption that all law should be expressed in the form of property and contract. The problem isn't lack of regulations, or of oversight -- there's a plenitude of both in Hollywood.

35:

Andrew G @29: don't neglect the union-busting power that is available to capital by exploiting racial divisions between immigrant groups...

http://www.kennesaw.edu/iaie2002/chapterone.pdf

36:

There's an interesting mis-match on the propaganda side of this strike - the writers are making clever, informative and amusing films and articles; the studios are affiliated with many of the news broadcasters. In an educative model of what-this-is-all-about-in-the-first-place, some of the writers stuff is wandering all over the internet and getting passed on becuase it's fun. The studio side, not quite so much.

37:

Considering the "common carrier" rule, which says telecom providers are not responsible for data sent through their channels, how could deals like that be enforced? And why would the broadband providers agree to them?

Telecom providers are already prioritizing traffic over their networks and outright blocking certain traffic. There have been numerous articles over the past few months about Comcast slowing or blocking P2P traffic, and about Verizon blocking pro-abortion rights text messages over their cell network, to cite just two examples. The telecom providers are free to prioritize traffic over their networks as they see fit. Welcome to the "free" market.

As to why they'd do such a thing, I can think of a variety of reasons:

1) To avoid an onslaught of lawsuits from the studios, implicating them as complicit parties in the illegal content sharing taking place over their networks.

2) In order to take advantage of sweetheart deals from the studios, offering them free (or reduced-price) content or a cut of the gross in return for blocking or de-prioritizing content from non-studio sources.

3) Because the telecom network is already owned by a big media firm (see Time Warner Cable).

4) Because they're afraid of the media shitstorm a major media player like Fox Noise could whip up if they fail to conceded to big media's demands. I mean after all, they got a majority of the American public to believe Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. If you can get the country to believe something so obviously bogus about something so fundamental, it would be child's play to tar and feather Comcast or Verizon.

38:

Re: #23 "It's also amazing how people are socialized to empathize with the powerful."

Post-Colonial Studies afficionados refer to this as "The colonialized mind."

I take this to be a kind of geopoliticalized Stockholm syndrome.

In the Jewish ghettos under Nazi domination, this led to the Judenrat --
councils of Jewish elders, (Judenrat; plural: Judenräte), responsible for organizing the orderly deportation to the death camps.

So those who rail against those greedy unionized writers, are kissing the ass jackbooted thugs of the Producers Guild and their media-concentrated Corporate masters.

I'm with Walter Jon Williams on this one.

39:

Charlie @ 33: What's keeping them in power, however, is the ability to "influence" pet congressmen into passing legislation that favors them. That's anti-market behavior, and a good example of how government corrupts capitalism.

Witness some the latest attempts at insanity - a proposal to remove financial aid from the students at any school that doesn't do enough to block file sharing...
http://blogs.pcworld.com/staffblog/archives/005906.html

40:

Iron Thighs @ 35:

Sadly, the management/capitalist class doesn't even have to come in to play on that. The university I work at is very pro-diversity and left-liberal. Yet there's an outside anti-immigrant group trying to stir up descent in one of the unions. The union membership in question is largely black, and they are preying on fears of illegal Mexican immigrants coming at taking jobs from poor blacks. Added to this, the parent union is UNITE-HERE, which is strongly pro-immigrant due to the large number of hospitality and related unions in it. They're trying to push for money to be withheld from the parent union,...

41:

"It's also amazing how people are socialized to empathize with the powerful."

It's an ape thaing.

42:

I'd just like to say that as a game designer, I could kiss these guys for striking. I'm not commenting on the merits of their case, you understand, but the games industry is going to benefit quite nicely from this strike.

Oh, one comment - I'd love even the *concept* of residuals in the games industry.

43:

Andrew: you guys need to unionize. Badly.

44:

Oooh, that is *such* a touchy subject. I am in favour of a union, personally. And I think it'd benefit the games companies as much as if not more than the staff, for various reasons (some of the silly, silly things which go on in the games industry, some of which I'm sure you're aware of..). But some people in games, and not the managers, get very worked up about the very concept.

(There is an existing union which supposedly covers game designers. I looked at their fees, blinked and passed - plus I'm not convinced they really would reprisent our interests properly because of their broad scope)

45:

Daniel@6: I'm sorry, but you're arguing for a direct correlation which I'm afraid eludes me.

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