Australian screenwriters have launched a multi-million-dollar legal case against the Federal Government authority in charge of collecting and distributing audiovisual royalties.
The Australian Writers’ Guild has accused Screenrights of misleading and deceptive conduct by claiming to represent scriptwriters when it has not, claiming writers have not been getting paid properly.
Screenrights maintains it pays the appropriate copyright holders.
The Writers’ Guild is heading to the Federal Court to seek to recover tens of millions of dollars in royalty payments from Screenrights.
Screenrights was set up in 1990 to collect and carve up royalty money to producers, broadcasters, distributors, music, script and other copyright owners.
Industry veteran, screenwriter Jan Sardi, said the trickle of royalty payments has all but evaporated.
“They contacted me 20 years ago and said they had $400 for a children’s show that I wrote and would I sign up as a member, so I’m one of the very earliest members of Screenrights,” Mr Sardi said.
“I didn’t get any more money after that, that was it. When I asked questions, particularly after I had the film Shine, which was a world-wide hit, [I] didn’t receive a dollar, you ask questions.
“I was given the run-around.”
Mr Sardi said script writers were supposed to get a 22 per cent cut, but the writers have been written out.
“I’m confounded by it, scriptwriters are confounded by it, the Australian Writers’ Guild is confounded by it,” he said.
“If you ask the people involved in setting up Screenrights, I’m sure they would be confounded by it.
“The Writers’ Guild actually helped set up Screenrights, we absolutely contributed financially to Screenrights, who said they were representing scriptwriters.”
Mr Sardi said that based on the fact that Screenrights has collected half a billion dollars over 20 years or so, the dollar figure that scriptwriters believe is owed to them is approximately $56 million.
‘I want to l know where my money has gone’
Tim Pye, a scriptwriter and producer on Australian TV productions including Sea Change, and A Country Practice, said he wants to know where his money has gone.
“All I know is I have been writing successful Australian television drama for 30 years and I’ve never received one cent from Screenrights,” My Pye said.
“And our fight is not with producers, it’s with Screenrights, because it’s not really who have they given that money to instead of writers — without a script there’s no film, there’s no television product, writers are at the absolute centre.
“And when a collecting society like Screenrights, with a view to distribute it, there’s no order in which order that money should be distributed, it should all be distributed equally at the same time.
“But unlike other collecting societies around the world, Screenrights take that money and they don’t tell writers that they have money for them, they wait for that money to be claimed, and so when someone else comes along and claims it, they just give it to them.”
Mr Pye said for a long time the Writers’ Guild asked Screenrights for a system that would ensure writers were paid correctly, but they were met with resistance every step of the way.
“I mean, legal action as you’ll understand is complex and expensive and time consuming. And we’ve only got to this point as a matter of absolute last resort,” he said.
Mr Pye said he also wants the Government to intervene.
“Essentially the Australian Writers’ Guild would like Attorney-General Brandis, to whom they are accountable, to step in and provide some fairness and transparency and accountability to the system they use to distribute their royalties,” Mr Pye said.
Screenrights has told the ABC it will defend the claims in the Federal Court.
It says it continues to collect and pay royalties on behalf of its members.
The first court date is set for April 5.