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Last July James M. Cain, specialist in fast-moving novels like "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," took time out from sex and murder and harnessed his vigorous style to a proposal for an American Authors' Authority. Published in the Screen Writer, monthly mouthpiece of the Screen Writers' Guild, the proposal has been the cause of red scares and herrings galore. A glance at Cain's opposition, which includes Westbrook Pegler, the Chicago Tribune, and a newly formed group of writers headed by the oldest of the old guard, John Erskine and Louis Bromfield, indicates a weak base for all the shouting. A look at the proposal itself, and the base disappears altogether.
Cain, who is a registered Democrat and who organized Democrats in 1944 to vote for Dowey, has actually proposed a completely capitalistic set-up. The Authors' Authority is not designed to control writing in America, nor is it even meant to engineer strikes and financial negotiations. The business of getting better pay and working conditions for the writer will remain in the hands of the various guilds which function now. The Authority is interested solely in the protection of authors' rights and property.
Today these rights are in a hopelessly mangled condition, so far as the writer is concerned. Somerset Maugham created a piece of property when he wrote "Of Human Bondage," but when he sold the movie rights he also sold the rights for any remake of his story and for any use of it by "heretofore undiscovered processes." Maugham gets nothing from the current version of "Of Human Bondage," but Warner Brothers adds another small fortune to its collection. In the case of a one-shot writer such as Margaret Mitchell, the peculiarities of the system become more flagrant. Magazine writers and novelits, too, are confronted with a series of arbitrary rules and regulations all operating to the advantage of the publishers.
Most recent to climb aboard the get-rich-at-the-writer's-expense bandwagon is the government. When a New York court decided that receipts from the sale of movie rights constitute income, not property, and that consequently these receipts could not be taxed at the low rate for capital gains, the government moved in, reviewed old sales, and cleaned up. But if the writer dies, his work magically becomes property and his beneficiaries receive an inheritance eaten away by property taxes.
The object of the Authors' Authority is to provide an organization which can and will take the trouble to protect the writer's property, a job which the writer himself has neither the time, the ability, nor the power to do. This Authority would copyright everything an author wrote and hold it in the author's name. The writer would sell nothing: he would lease rights--such as movie rights for only one movie, or serial rights for only one publication--but he would retain all future controls. In other words, his property would remain his own for the first time.
The Authority would also maintain a lobby in Washington. The first and most important job of the lobby would be to get outmoded copyright laws modernized. It would also attempt to keep outrages such as the New York court ruling from botching up the writers' works. Cain's ebullience overboiled when he thought of financing these functions by levies on publishers and theatrical and movie producers, and of eventually taxing them enough to provide a minimum yearly salary for writers. But the Screen Writers' Guild, an organization whose "communist leadership" is mythical, recently decided to rewrite the proposal "in better form" and more to the taste of publishers and producers. This should silence those who holler "Petrillo" whenever they hear of the Authority.
As for those who see in the Authority the danger of controlled writing, they can rest their alarmist bones in peace. The Authority is not built along political lines, reactionary or otherwise. And should the writers of America discover the Authority making one fraction of a move toward censorship, there would be heard in the land a ery of eloquence that would put Hearst and McCormack to shame.
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