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Fair Play, Jewish Law and the Writers’ Strike

Rabbi Waxman is right that it is hard to feel sympathy for striking writers who may make millions of dollars a year. However, I disagree that the fact that many other workers in other industries are severely underpaid should prejudice us against the screen writers. Many writers are freelancers or lower level writers who make $50,000 or less a year. And 48 percent of writers, on the West Coast at least, are unemployed (not because of the strike).
Try living on a salary like that, or during the frequent periods of unemployment between assignments. The online royalties that the writers are seeking can make the real difference between making ends meet or not.


This strike is probably not the exception to the rule that it takes two to tango, or not, as the case may be. However, it is not right that the media power houses have been refusing to pay online royalties. At our last meeting of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, we passed the responsa “Intellectual Property: Can You Steal It if You Can’t Touch It,” by Rabbi Barry Leff that affirmed that using electronic intellectual property (music downloads, computer programs, etc.) without proper permission and payment is equivalent to robbery and is therefore prohibited by Jewish law even where such intellectual properties are not protected under secular law. (As Jews, we hold that the law of the land is the law, which means it is also binding under Jewish law.) While not completely analogous, the use of writers’ works online without some sharing of the income such use generates seems not only contrary to fair play but also to Jewish law in a similar way.

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posted February 6, 2008 at 1:17 pm

To me, if workers are being treated unfairly, it doesn’t matter whether the salary in question is spare change or millions. It is jealousy to criticize the salary that another makes.

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Marian Neudel

posted February 6, 2008 at 4:08 pm

This is the same kind of problem the players had during the baseball strike, and it results directly from the current situation of unions in our economy. Forming a union is rarely a way to GAIN economic power today; most of the time, having a union merely REFLECTS economic power the particular “workers” already have. You have to be rich and powerful to have a union; if you’re not, it’s likely to get decertified, or the plant shut down. So those unions that still have enough clout to call a strike are unlikely to get much sympathy from working people who don’t. As an occasional free-lance writer myself, I find it hard to support the strike, but OTOH I wouldn’t cross a picket line if I could avoid it.
Some years ago, the full-time faculty at a school where I was an adjunct called a strike. Since I was teaching at an obscure “satellite” campus, I didn’t even have to physically cross a picket line to get to work. And more to the point, the union had never seen fit to solicit the support of adjuncts, and had for sure never offered any support TO adjuncts. So I sat that one out, and didn’t even feel like a scab for doing it. The unions are making major mistakes by not reaching out to the natural strike-breakers in their professions, the temps and part-timers and free-lancers.

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posted February 6, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Many year ago the late Abbie Hoffman wrote a book called ‘Steal this Book’. Would it be permissable to take such a book out of a bookstore without paying for it?
If someone wrote a song with lyrics to the effect of ‘property is theft’, would it be permissable to download such a song without paying for it?
Many songs have lyrics bemoaning the gap between rich and poor, such songs having been written by multi-millionaires. Would it be permissible for a non-millionaire to download such a song without paying for it (thus reducing the gap between rich and poor like the song suggested)?
Many songs have lyrics that take an anti-corporate stance. Would it be permissible to download such a song that had been on a corporate webisite for free?

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posted February 7, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Thank you!
I have to admit I was disgusted by the earlier post about the strike, calling the writers spoiled for expecting far less than their fair share of revenues from their work. The vast majority of writers do not have a steady paycheck, and those royalties are what keep food on the table. Of course, the media isn’t going to cover them – it’s going to cover the famous people in the picket lines, whose presence is about fair play and supporting their fellows, not about earning four more cents for a dvd sale.
As for whether or not unions are to the detriment or benefit of their members, it is my personal feeling that the entertainment industry unions work differently than most labor unions, and my observation is that they work more for their members. They provide more, protect more, and do less to inhibit their members’ work.

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posted February 8, 2008 at 7:00 pm

This all depends on the contract. If union members elect to give bargaining rights to a union and vote for the resulting contract, then the contract defines what is right. ‘Fair’ is a meaningless term when a written contract exists. People who elect to work as independent contractors and collect royalties are bound by the contract that was in place when the creative work was performed.
I agree, stop whining. If the income slows, work harder or get another job.

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