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You Wouldn’t Steal a Donut, So Why Would You Steal a Digital Record?

Posted May 07, 2010
2:35 PM PST

The following was featured in "Label Letter," the newsletter of the Union Label & Service Trades Department, AFL-CIO. It is posted on AFTRA.com with permission from UL&STD. 

A fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage. Securing that wage for members is the first duty of every union, in manufacturing, construction, transportation, sports, government and entertainment.

So, think of George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Beyonce, Lady Ga Ga, Peyton Manning, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Katie Couric, or the stunt driver in your favorite action movie as just another dues payer, just like bus driver, bakery worker, a machinist or a plumber.

Theft isn’t a big problem for bus drivers, bakers, machinists or plumbers, but it is for show business workers. Your favorite movie personalities, singers and entertainers are losing billions of dollars to thieves—people who steal their work—and they’ve asked their unions to join with the AFL-CIO to try to stop it.

Tracking a “fair wage” for entertainment industry professionals is not easy. In the case of writers, dancers, actors, entertainers, musicians, and thousands of behind-the-scenes specialists and technicians—wages come in two phases: Typically there is an initial payment for the work upon its completion followed by a series of residuals or “royalties” when the work is later legitimately resold and reused. Residual or royalty payments generate funds for health and pension plans and other long-term benefi ts. But, that income stream disappears when DVDs and CDs are counterfeited and sold on the black market.

Working with the AFL-CIO Department of Professionals, unions in the entertainment industry recently won unanimous support from the AFL-CIO Executive Council for a strongly worded resolution to increase public awareness of the scope of the problem of intellectual property theft. The resolution pledges labor’s support for government policies to counteract digital piracy and encourages union members to respect copyright law—and as a matter of union solidarity—urges union members to never illegally download or stream pirated content or purchase illegal CDs and DVDs.

Although the term “show business” conjures up images of lavish lifestyles, the real work of show business involves millions of people who live a middle class existence, with families, kids who need braces, homes and car payments. Typically, show business people experience intermittent periods of creative work sandwiched between all-too frequent periods of hustling to land the next job. Regular payments of residuals help maintain a steady flow of income during the lean times.

As AFTRA National President Roberta Reardon points out: “Ninety percent of recording artists’ earnings is directly linked to physical sales and lawful downloads, and approximately 50 percent of a television stations’ revenue is ‘downstream, both of which directly contribute to our members’ income and benefits. When someone steals a song or a TV show off of the internet, they’re not only stealing music or a video: they’re robbing performers and their families of a living wage, health care and a secure retirement. ”

 Personal Losses, Costs to Health Care & Retirement
  • AFTRA Recording Artists—Derived 90 percent of total income from royalties
    in 2008.
  • SAG members—Derived 43 percent of total income from residuals in 2008;
    residuals funded 36 percent of SAG Health & Pension Plan.
  • IATSE members—65 percent of Health and Welfare contributions.

In 2009, leaders from AFTRA, IATSE, SAG and some industry groups met with President Obama in the White House to raise the issue there. The same group met with Vice President Biden and a group of cabinet officials—including the Attorney General and the Secretaries of State and Commerce to stress the dire nature of the problem. They pointed out that according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries, 95 percent of music downloads worldwide are illegal—a strong indication of what’s in store for
television and other audio/ visual sectors.

IATSE President Matthew D. Loeb said he is encouraged by the February announcement that, at the union’s urging, the White House has formed a task force on intellectual property as part of a broad IP enforcement initiative. The task force will focus on strengthening efforts
to combat the problem and developing an Administration-wide strategic plan on intellectual property.

In the movie business, musicians, writers and other professionals who don’t appear on screen are also dependent on royalty payments. Even the behind-the-scenes craft workers who handle props, makeup, costumes, special effects and other elements of a movie production depend upon money from residuals that goes directly to their pension and health care funds.

Industry Losses Kill Jobs
Rip offs in the entertainment business cost billions in lost compensation and destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs. For the music industry alone, digital theft costs the U.S. economy $12.5 billion in total output and 71,060 jobs lost. Digital rip offs of movies results in $5.5 billion in lost wages and the loss of an estimated 141,030 jobs.

The history of the entertainment business is filled with stories of crooks who take advantage of naïve performers by lying about revenues; or unfair contracts that left performers with very little of the money that their work generated. That problem spurred
the growth of strong unions in show business and remains one of the most important
services the unions provide.

Who Are the Thieves?
Intellectual property “pirates” come in many different forms:

As with most crime, none of these tactics would be worthwhile if ordinary people refused to buy the illicit product.

Unions in the Arts, Entertainment and Media
Industries (AEMI):

Actors Equity Association (AEA)
The American Federation of Musicians (AFM)
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)
The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE)
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
The Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU)
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG)
The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE)

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