A group of actors including Ed Asner is alleging that SAG-AFTRA, the largest entertainment union in Hollywood, has failed to properly account for foreign royalty payments owed to them.
“As SAG-AFTRA publicly joined in the festivities honoring Labor Day, we the undersigned were quite mindful that tens of thousands of U.S. actors have had their residuals and foreign levies withheld if not converted unlawfully by SAG and AFTRA for well in excess of a decade,” said the Sept. 11 letter addressed to union board members.
At issue is the guild’s handling of so-called foreign levies, which are royalties foreign governments apply to the sale of blank videotapes, cable transmissions and DVD rentals to compensate performers and authors for the reuse and copying of their work. The guild receives money, held in trust, from foreign collection societies and is responsible for disbursing the proceeds to actors.
In September 2007, “Leave It to Beaver” star Ken Osmond sued SAG, alleging that the union withheld foreign levy funds from him and other actors. SAG settled the case in August 2010. Similar legal settlements were reached by the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America.
But in its Sept. 11 letter to SAG-AFTRA, board members, “Lou Grant” star Asner and 30 other performers, including former SAG board member George Coe and other political opponents of the current leadership, said SAG officials did not give proper notice of the Osmond litigation and settlement process. They accused the union of improperly withholding foreign royalties and failing to properly account for the funds.
“We are the real owners of foreign levies and are entitled to a full accounting of all transactions involving our property,” the letter stated.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, general counsel for SAG, said the letter’s claims were preposterous. Crabtree-Ireland noted that the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers audits the union’s handling of foreign royalties. He said the union has distributed $14.2 million in foreign levies since 2007 and currently has about $7.4 million to distribute. He added that SAG mailed out at least 70,000 notices to members about the settlement of the foreign levies case and that the union distributes unclaimed funds after three years to the SAG Foundation or the Actors Fund.
He noted that a Los Angeles judge in August ruled that SAG, DGA and the WGA were all in compliance with their settlement agreements, which require unions to maintain an online database where members can check to see if they are owed money, among other things.
“The court decided the settlement was fair and appropriate, so I don’t know what more anyone can expect,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “If we hadn’t gone and collected the money, the money would have been lost to our members forever.”