'Labor' because studios say so
I haven't been allowed to write a word since Nov. 1, so forgive me if I seem irrationally exuberant as I put words to paper.
As you know, I can't do my job right now because there's a strike. I abide by those strike rules because I'm in a union a real union, the kind federally certified by the National Labor Relations Board.
And the NLRB only certifies unions of bona-fide employees.
This is one of those hard-to-challenge facts, like the wetness of water. Maybe that's why I'm so puzzled when people suggest writers aren't really labor and management isn't really management.
Sure, it's easy to see that we writers aren't hospital workers or janitors or any other employee normally associated with the word "labor." We don't punch clocks, we don't work shifts, there's no factory floor and a surprising number of us not only don't wear uniforms, but occasionally forgo pants when plying our trade.
The United States features a lovely quirk of copyright law known as "work for hire." The work-for-hire doctrine states that employers may commission employees to create certain works of intellectual property while still retaining authorship.
In other words, when I write a screenplay in France for Canal Plus, I'm the author. When I write a screenplay in the United States for Universal Studios, Universal Studios is the author.
The companies who employ us are very insistent upon this. Indeed, in every contract I've ever signed, there's a cute little dichotomy enshrined in the legal arrangement. The employer makes me swear that I'm definitely the writer of this original work, and then they make me swear that they're actually the author.
The companies don't do this to be cute. They do this because the movie business is most accurately described as "the intellectual property exploitation industry." The companies we're currently struggling with are experts at mining intellectual property and then squeezing every ounce of juice out of it through movies, home videos, televised rebroadcasts, airplane exhibitions, merchandising, theme park rides, novelizations, soundtracks, sequels, breakfast foods, home pregnancy kits, space-based missile defense systems, et cetera.
So when people ask why we writers call ourselves "labor," the easiest answer is that we don't the companies do. They demand that we be employees so that they can reap the full benefits of copyright exploitation, and that's fine. Honestly.
As long as they treat us fairly.
Because we're employees, we have to ask for residuals. We can't negotiate royalty rates. That's what non-labor does. We have to band together in unions of employees to collectively bargain for fair compensation for the reuse of the fruit of our authorship.
So if you're fuzzy on who's labor and who's management in Hollywood, here's a simple litmus test. If someone controls the copyright in a piece of exploited intellectual property (or represents the companies that do), they're management.