Confusing royalties and salaries

Today, I was sent a link to an emotional rant by Harlan Ellison about paying writers royalties. I admit that I’d never never heard the name before (not sure if I should have or not…), but, from the sounds of his Wikipedia article, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like him.

He did an on camera interview about the making of Babylon 5, and the film company doing the packaging for Warner Bros. called him up because they wanted to use it on the DVD. They wanted to use it for free, he wanted to be paid. If he owns the copyright to the interview, he has the legal right to demand compensation, but it’s the ensuing rant which brings up all sorts of problems.

He hopelessly confuses royalties and salaries.

By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing. Do you get a pay cheque? Does your boss get a pay cheque?… Do you pay the camera man? Do you pay the cutters?… Would you go to a gas station and ask them to give you free gas?

They weren’t asking him to work, they were asking to use something he’s already worked on. A salary is about paying someone to do work, but royalties are about paying someone to make use of work they’ve already done. So, his pay cheque comments are off the mark. Also, if he was compensated for the use of the interview, would he pay the camera man and cutters who helped produce the original interview? What about the manufacturers of the camera or the audio equipment they used? What about the lighting crew? What about the actors, without whom there’d be no Babylon 5 to do an interview for? What about those who taught him the language he uses in the interview?

It’s not as clear who should be paid when it comes to work that’s already been done, compared to work that’s about to be done. In most other domains, people don’t get paid for work they’ve already done. I don’t pay Lenovo royalties when I develop software on my ThinkPad, I don’t pay Gibson royalties when I play a gig on my Les Paul, and I don’t pay my music or computer science teachers when I apply a concept they’ve taught me on the job.

He says, “they always want the writer to work for nothing.” That’s certainly a problem, but the example he’s ranting about is not about him being asked to do any work. He wouldn’t be doing any more work by saying yes than by saying no. Again, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the legal right to ask for compensation, but in confusing payroll cheques and royalty cheques his complaint doesn’t really make sense.

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s wrong for him to ask for money in this case. It’s the way in which he confuses royalties and salaries that’s problematic. Royalties aren’t always the answer, and though it may be convenient, it’s inaccurate to make an argument about paying people for work they do when you’re really talking about work they’ve done.

Ellison also seems to have an elitist complex and a problem with competition. He says, “I get so angry about this because you’re undercut by all the amateurs,” and then goes on to flap his arms (not sure why…) and mock the mindless attention seeking of the amateurs who “have no idea they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something.” Like, every time they take a piss, for example. (“I sell my soul, but at the highest rates. I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.”)

What about the “amateurs” who realize they can get a competitive edge on the “professionals” by offering they content at a lower rate? Isn’t that called competition? If competition is driving down the monetary value of Mr. Ellison’s interviews, maybe he ought to invest some time in fine-tuning his business model (no, that doesn’t mean suing more people), rather than simply whining about the change in the market.

At the start of the rant, Ellison says “everybody else may be an asshole, but I’m not.” If you watch the video, you might even doubt the accuracy in that.

It’s entertaining though.

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