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No Biz Like Show Biz

May 21, 2000

The studios don't have much sympathy for the old writers and other creative talent who helped build the film and television industry. The companies insist on sticking to contracts negotiated before 1960 in which the artists signed away their rights to payment for reruns. But the studios have wanted and have gotten new laws passed to extend their copyright protection, and they push governments around the globe to make sure no royalties go unpaid.

Film classics such as "Rebel Without a Cause" still earn millions for the studios, but most of their writers don't see a penny of it. Congress created the windfall by extending copyright protection, and it should now insist that the studios share it with the creators.

Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., who co-wrote the immensely popular 1950s TV sitcom "I Love Lucy," received their last check in 1957, even though the show is still in reruns. The widow of the legendary screenwriter and director Preston Sturges doesn't get a dime from the sale of videotapes of his famous "Sullivan's Travels."

As The Times reported last week, paying older artists for work they did before 1960 would cost each major studio less than $1 million over the next 20 years. The studios, in a show of generosity Charles Dickens might relish, say they would pay residuals for movies made in the 1940s after the year 2016. Julius Epstein, who got $15,000 for writing the script for the movie "Casablanca," would have to be 108 to get his check.

The companies cling to the argument that since the artists negotiated away residuals in the pre-1960 agreement they are entitled to no payment even though neither side could predict at the time that technology would create unheard-of new markets for the classics of the 1940s and '50s. Wherever one's sympathies lie, from a strictly legal point of view the studios are probably right. But that's not the end of the matter.

For Time Warner, Universal, MGM and other studios that own the classics, the new media provide a steady stream of revenue as long as the movies and TV programs are protected by copyright. To make sure that stream doesn't dry up any time soon, the industry asked Congress to extend copyright protection, and Congress obliged. In 1998, it added 20 years to the life of a copyright and handed the studios a pot of gold. But the actual artists get little or nothing from the new wealth even though they are the kinds of creators for whom the copyright laws were enacted in the first place.

Congress recognized this and, in an amendment to the last extension, urged the studios to sit down with the creators and find a way to share the benefits equitably. That process has failed. The aging artists are turning to Congress for help once more, and they should be heard. After all, they are the source of the studios' wealth.

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