Australian Writers’ Guild launches multi-million dollar Federal Court action

06 March, 2016 by Brian Karlovsky

Australian Writers' Guild President, Jan Sardi.


The Australian Writers’ Guild has launched a multi-million dollar legal action in the Federal Court against royalty collection and distribution society Screenrights.

The action, which was filed on March 3 by the 2,600 member guild, comes after protracted negotiations between the AWG and Screenrights over the distribution of royalties to writers.

Screenrights was established in 1990 to administer provisions in the Australian Copyright Act that allow educational institutions to copy from television and radio, provided payment is made to the copyright owners.

A case management hearing has been set for April 5, with Justice Jane Jagot presiding.

The AWG has issued a statement alleging that screenwriters have been deprived of royalties for more than two decades.

“Scriptwriters say that instead of protecting them, Screenrights may have misdirected possibly tens of millions of dollars in royalties that should have been paid to writers over the past two decades,” according to the AWG. 

“Based on Screenrights' own figures, they appear to have collected over $50 million in script royalties over the past 20 years, yet AWG’s Australian members may have received as little as $350,000.”

“The case alleges Screenrights also engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct by claiming it was representing scriptwriters when it was not.”

Screenrights collected $45.9 million in licence revenue and other income for the film and television industries in 2014/15.

Screenrights has offered to mediate the issues raised by AWG.

 “We consider it unfortunate therefore that AWGACS has initiated litigation,” according to a Screenrights statement.

 “Screenrights pays the appropriate rights holders in accordance to Australian law and will defend the claims.

 “Screenrights continues to collect and pay royalties on behalf of its members.”

According to a statement, The AWG is also seeking declarations from the Federal Court that Screenrights has “committed numerous breaches of trust and breaches of statutory duties, that it engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct under the Australian Consumer Law and that its actions wrongfully interfered with contractual relations between scriptwriters and producers.” 

AWG president and Oscar-nominated writer, Jan Sardi, said scriptwriters were forced to take legal action through their representative industry bodies after years of negotiation and attempts to resolve the matter got them nowhere.  

“This case is about fairness,” he said. 

“It’s about scriptwriters – who are at the very centre of our film and TV industry – being treated fairly and getting the royalties that they are rightfully entitled to.”

AWG Past President Tim Pye, who has written some of Australia’s most popular television programs – Sea Change and Love Child – said Screenrights was set up to reward creators, but was not doing so fairly.

“I have been writing for more than 30 years non-stop and I’ve never received a dollar from Screenrights," he said.

"What is now clear is that the system rewards some people but not others. Screenrights knows the system is biased and broken for scriptwriters but will not fix it."

Screenrights chief executive, Simon Lake, was unable to comment due to the ongoing proceedings.

Screenrights chief executive, Simon Lake.

In September 2015, Lake told IF Screenrights did not require its members to identify their profession when they join or when they receive distributions. 

“We do not distribute to members on the basis of their occupation,” he said. “We pay rightsholders. Accordingly, it is not possible to determine how much has been paid specifically to writers and directors. 

“Any program contains a number of copyright materials protected by the Australian Copyright Act such as: film, script and commissioned sound recordings. Screenrights allocates royalties relating to each of these copyright materials, not to types of industry participants.” 

“It is difficult to determine how much of the script allocation is actually received by industry participants who identify as writers, because claimants don’t always identify themselves as writers. 

“For example a claimant in relation to a documentary may be a writer, director and producer. We do not require the claimant to indicate their occupation in order to receive the royalties. We merely require members to provide us with a warranty that they are the correct rightsholder.

“Also, sometimes there are agreements between writers and producers whereby the producers claim secondary royalties such as Screenrights royalties and then provide writers a share of the backend. An example of this occurs with US studios that have a work for hire arrangement with writers and pay royalties to writers via the US Guilds. 

“Screenwriters and writers’ agents are also able to claim royalties direct from Screenrights rather than through the writer’s guild collecting society.

“For the reasons outlined above, there are various ways where writers and directors may receive Screenrights royalties and they may do so without us knowing that they are writers or directors.”