In November 2020, author Alan Dean Foster revealed that Disney had stopped paying him the royalties he was owed from decades of writing novelizations of movies such as Star Wars and Aliens. Disney, in turn, claimed that when it had only purchased the rights to those properties, not the liabilities that accompanied those rights. Sure, they now owned all of the Star Wars content ever produced, including the rights to re-publish and profit from novels written by people like Foster, but as far as they were concerned, they did not purchase the legal obligations attached to all of that content they acquired.
In April of 2021, the Science Fiction Writer's Association launched a taskforce to represent writers from various organizations, working together to make sure that Disney paid creators what they were actually owed.
One year later, the #DisneyMustPay taskforce has published an update on its efforts. While there has been some progress, it sounds like #DisneyMustPay is still working the part where Disney actually pays people:
You've paid some authors what you owed them. But there are other creators that you don't want to talk about. And, because you did not take our advice, new creators are coming forward who are owed money, too.
You still refuse to recognize your obligations to lesser-known authors who wrote media tie-in works for Marvel, for Star Wars, for Aliens, for Predator, for Buffy: TVS, and more, universes that you've bought the rights to, along with the obligations to those creators. You've re-published their works but have failed to do even the bare necessities of contract and talent management. You've failed to pay these writers royalties they're legally owed and have not given them the courtesy of royalty statements and reprint notices.
The taskforce also shared a list of Disney-owned properties for which it "verified reports of missing statements and royalties," including for reprinted works.
It sounds like Disney has made good on payments to some higher-profile writers, while still exploiting the work of less-powerful creators. One such writer, who asked to remain anonymous in order to remain employed, spoke with journalist Graeme McMillan about the complications of the payment plan, and what it would take to get the money they're owed:
I asked the creator if they'd considered taking legal action against Marvel to recover what they're owed, only to be told that such a course of action would likely require a great deal of effort for what is likely to be little reward. "The amount of money involved is honestly pretty low. Like, small-claims-court-low," they said. "It's hard to justify even looking for an attorney who'd be willing to get involved. Let alone going through the complicated process of actually suing Disney."
The mention of a small amount of money leads into perhaps the most obvious question of all: with Marvel not communicating with them at all over the issue, did the creator have any idea of just how much money Marvel owed them in royalties by this point? The answer was, bluntly, no: "There's the incentive payment for the collections that have been printed since I got my last royalty check years ago. And there's the question of digital sales. The comics I worked on are still available for purchase on comiXology," they told me. "I've never received a statement saying how many have sold, let alone received money for them. So I really have no idea how much I'd be making if they actually chose to make payments."
Something interesting worth noting: according to this creator, the incentive payment system for paperback and hardcover collections is based on the number of books printed, not sold. Though again, it's hard for the creators to know what those numbers actually are — and even if they knew, it might not matter, because Marvel's contracts are written to ensure that any royalty payments are in fact entirely optional:
The plan explained that Marvel was the sole arbiter of who gets incentive payment money, and that all such payments are voluntary on their part. It also stated that Marvel can change the incentive plan at any time.
An Open Letter To Disney [Writers Must Be Paid]
A Year Later, Disney Must Pay (Still) [Graeme McMillan / Comics, FYI]