WIPO pact covers actors' rights on foreign reuse

Leaders of SAG-AFTRA have given a strong endorsement to a new global treaty touted as extending rights to actors over the reuse of their work, images and likenesses outside the U.S.

The union made the announcement early Tuesday following a signing ceremony in Beijing for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances. The union said ratification will probably take more than a year.

SAG-AFTRA noted that more than 140 nations participated in the diplomatic conference in Beijing and that as many as 60 countries were authorized to sign the treaty.

“However, in order for the treaty to take effect, it must be ratified by at least 30 parties,” the announcement said. “The crucial step of ratification and entry into force is expected to take a year or more.”

The union said Tuesday that it began work in the late 1990s to obtain written agreements covering foreign use of actors’ work.

“Actors and other audiovisual performers have long needed the crucial protections of this treaty, and now we can finally have them,” said SAG-AFTRA co-presidents Ken Howard and Roberta Reardon. “With new rights to proper compensation for the use of our work and control over the use of our images and likenesses, actors will have important tools to protect themselves around the world. This rising tide can lift the boats of all actors worldwide.”

SAG-AFTRA national exec director David White said the union was pleased with the effort put forward by the U.S. government on the treaty. “Now it is time for the administration to take the steps necessary to bring this treaty to the Senate for ratification, so that the U.S. can remain in the forefront of global intellectual property rights,” he added.

The Screen Actors Guild, which merged with AFTRA in March, was sued in 2007 by Ken Osmond over the issue of how it disburses money derived from foreign tax revenues. It reached a settlement with Osmond that was approved in Los Angeles Superior Court early last year.

Osmond, best known for portraying Eddie Haskell in the “Leave It to Beaver” series, filed the suit over SAG’s handling of “foreign levies” collected from countries through mechanisms such as taxes on video sales and rentals to compensate copyright holders for reuse. Osmond received $15,000 as part of the settlement, and his lawyers received $315,000.

SAG officials insisted since Osmond filed his suit that it had done nothing wrong in its handling of the foreign funds for the past two decades. It announced last year that it had created an online Foreign Royalties tracker for actors and asserted that the guild had collected $18.1 million in foreign royalties for performers and distributed $8.78 million in more than 273,000 checks to more than 76,000 individuals.

The settlement requires SAG to hire an independent consultant to perform a one-time review of the program and make recommendations to improve the processing of the funds to members. It also provides for an annual review of the program by a Big Four accounting firm; publication of the existence of the program and availability of the funds; and “reasonable efforts” by SAG to pay 90% of the funds to members within three years.

“Foreign levies” for American actors began to flow in 1989 after the U.S. agreed to the terms of the Berne Convention, which established the right of authorship for individuals who create works of art. SAG, the WGA and the DGA began collecting the foreign funds in the early 1990s on behalf of members and nonmembers who had a stake in films and TV programs.

Osmond’s suit contended that SAG overstepped its authority to make those agreements and never disclosed them until he and Jack Klugman threatened to file suit. A similar suit on the foreign levies issue was filed in 2005 against the WGA West by William Richert and was settled last year; another was filed in 2006 against the DGA by William Webb, who settled in 2008.

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