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24th Oct 2021

Interview

Screenwriters call for EU rights on royalties

  • Screenwriters like Alberdingk Thijm are less concerned with illegal downloads, than with remuneration from broadcasters. (Photo: EUobserver)

The Dutch film Dunya & Desie has been available for Dutch subscribers to streaming website Netflix since last autumn.

But while the screenwriter, Robert Alberdingk Thijm, was paid for his original text, he hasn’t got a cent from the US company for the film’s redistribution.

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It’s not just Netflix. If, for instance, the broadcasting networks which own a TV series the Dutch screenwriter wrote decide to sell them on DVD then, in most cases, he wouldn’t receive additional payment.

This is because it’s common practice in the audiovisual business for screenwriters and directors to sign away their author rights when entering a contract with a producer. They receive a lump sum payment instead.

“Screenwriters and directors don't receive any royalties for their work”, Thijm told EUobserver. He says he takes the lump sum offers because he has no choice.

“Imagine if the same were true for book writers or musicians. We would find it ridiculous if John Grisham would be forced to see his work become a worldwide success, adapted into films, but receive no additional payment.”

Thijm is a board member of the Dutch society for writers.

He met with Gunther Oettinger, the EU commissioner for the digital market, in Brussels on Tuesday (24 March), to tell him the EU should enshrine in law that authors cannot sign away their right to royalties.

Aside from his film work, he has a theoretical background in copyright.

“I studied law, specifically author's rights. That's a very useful study for becoming a screenwriter, because you learn a lot about structure, about motives, about conflict.”

His work includes award-winning TV series and films that have also been broadcast in Belgium, Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

However, critical success does not guarantee extra income.

’I love writing’

“I love writing”, said Alberdingk Thijm. “But I should be able to make a living out of it, without having to beg for money. That is not just about our economic situation, but also has to do with dignity.”

While many other types of creators are protected from signing away their rights, screenwriters and directors never received that protection, noted Thijm.

At first, that wasn't necessary because public broadcasters “behaved decently”. But after commercial broadcasters entered the European TV landscape in the 1990s, things changed.

“Now, public broadcasters behave as if they are commercial broadcasters”, Thijm said.

According to the Dutch screenwriter, in contract negotiations the broadcaster always tries to set a lump sum to avoid having to pay royalties. Nine out of ten times the broadcaster succeeds, because the screenwriter wants his work to be seen.

Since the proliferation of broadband internet, there has been an ongoing debate on piracy of films and TV series.

But screenwriters like Thijm are less concerned with illegal downloads, than with remuneration from broadcasters.

“To us, the broadcasters have been the pirates. There is this appeal to stand against piracy, because otherwise those poor film makers don't receive any payment. Well, those poor film makers - I have never received any payment from a DVD sale, or from a streaming service.”

Lobbying the EU

In 2010, writers' associations like Thijm's set up the Brussels-based Society of Audiovisual Authors (SAA) to lobby the EU institutions.

The SAA organised Thijm’s meeting with Oettinger. On Monday it also published a reflection paper, amid what promises to be an extensive debate on copyright reform in Europe.

“Audiovisual authors should be granted an unwaivable right to remuneration negotiated and collected on a collective basis, to guarantee they will be financially associated to the exploitation of their works, whatever the distribution platform”, the paper said.

The SAA is only one of many stakeholders that will try to influence the commission.

Thijm did not expect to receive any promises from Oettinger, but was happy to have found a commissioner who “wants to maintain a dialogue”.

“At a European level, authors are being listened to, fortunately”, he said. But he added that the European Parliament and the EU member states also have to agree to the plans.

“There are very large companies with very different interests”, he said, citing as examples internet companies Google, Apple, and Facebook, but also cable company Liberty Global, which owns about 90 percent of the cable market in the Netherlands.

“Every cent that they don't have to pay makers, is profit for their shareholders.”

EU strategy

On Wednesday, the commission will debate the wider strategy for the EU's digital market. In May, it will publish a strategy paper, followed later this year by a proposal to reform the EU's copyright laws.

Ahead of the publication, the European Parliament is preparing a report with its wish list. The draft was written by German MEP Julia Reda, the only Pirate Party member of the EP.

One of the changes Reda proposed is to make the so-called freedom of panorama mandatory in all of the EU. Currently, member states may decide themselves whether to implement this principle, which states that public buildings should be allowed to be filmed or photographed without asking permission from the architect.

In Thijm's story A'dam - E.V.A., a TV series, the cityscape of Amsterdam played an important role. He was fortunate that the Netherlands has this freedom of panorama.

“It would have been a lot more difficult”, he said, to shoot the series in Brussels or Paris, where freedom of panorama has not been transposed into national law.

The makers of A'dam – E.V.A. were able to shoot many shots in Amsterdam thanks to the transposition by the Dutch government of an optional EU principle called freedom of panorama
The trailer for the film Dunya & Desie
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