State judge approves WGA settlement

State judge approves WGA settlement

Foreign levies agreement could be final by March

Posted: Thurs., Oct. 1, 2009,

A state court judge has given preliminary approval to a settlement in the tangled foreign levies suit against the Writers Guild of America –possibly triggering payment of millions of dollars to writers as early as next spring.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carl West approved the settlement Thursday and set Nov. 1 as the date for notifying approximately 17,000 class-action members. The jurist set Feb. 8 as the deadline for writers and heirs to opt out of the settlement and set March 1 as the date for final approval.

The 2005 suit, filed by William Richert (“Winter Kills”), centers on the WGA’s authority in collecting foreign funds due to scribes as compensation for reuse — such as taxes on video rentals, cable retransmissions and purchases of blank videocassettes and DVDs –and the guild’s handling of those funds. Unlike in the U.S., a foreign distributor cannot assume total ownership of the copyrights on an artist’s work.

“This has been a very hard-fought battle,” said Neville Johnson, Richert’s attorney. “I’m thrilled that we’re getting closer to writers and heirs getting paid these funds after two decades.”

The settlement calls for payment of all foreign funds within three years along with an independent accounting review of the program with any unclaimed funds will be paid to the Actors Fund. The WGA West disclosed recently in its annual report that, as of March 31, it had $30.3 million in “funds held in trust for members,” including foreign levies, client trust accounts, undeliverable funds and a residuals trust fund – although it didn’t break out how much of that was from foreign funds.

The foreign levies for American creatives began to flow after the U.S. agreement in 1989 to terms of the Berne Convention, which establishes the right of authorship for individuals who create works of art.

“The significance of this first-step triumph is that finally, after two decades or more, the WGA will have to lift the lid of its crypt of concealment of foreign taxes intended for writers and allow outside investigation,” Richert told Daily Variety on Thursday.

The DGA settled a similar suit last year. It has distributed $77 million in foreign levies, including over $8 million to nonmembers. SAG’s facing a similar suit from Ken Osmond that’s yet to be resolved.

The settlement is likely to come under fire from Eric Hughes, who has been a consultant for the plaintiffs on the suit. He told Daily Variety he plans to seek decertification of the suit as a class action.

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