performers should damn well make money when their work is streamed

When Famous Celebrity Performers, be they Beyoncé or Scarlett Johansson or someone else, sue for infringement, or demand full payment of their royalties, there’s always a bunch of unpleasant hot takes, an assortment of people insisting that those silly rich people don’t need money and should shut up and sit in a corner. I disagree, vehemently.

I’m not going to go into a full accounting of the ways in which royalties work—it’s late, and other people have done it better, and I have morning commitments and a cat who wakes me as the sun comes up. Indeed, I’ll note that, as this romance novelist points out, ScarJo isn’t the world’s most sympathetic figure—but what she’s doing is important anyway, and could make a huge difference for the little people.

When a lot of us think Big Fancy Royalty Checks, we probably think of the stars. Regé-Jean Page, the beautiful duke of Bridgerton fame, rather than the costume designer, or the composer. Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders, and not the rando extra, or the set designer. But, see, it isn’t just Murphy or Page or Alexander Dreymon or Angelina Jolie getting those royalties.

It is, instead, everybody who worked on that production, from the musicians who recorded the soundtrack to the people behind the costumes, from the set designers to the cinematographers, the dogsbodies and the sound techs, the stunt doubles and the script writers. And, to be blunt, that’s not even the half of the community that works on a film or a television series or a music video. And every one of those people deserves to be paid.

I grew up a musician’s daughter, bouncing from the world backstage to the world of a University of Chicago lab. I saw my mother’s royalty checks, and I knew the difference they made for us, even though they were small. We as a society have a tendency to deny the power and importance of creative work, but it is damn well work too, and artists and musicians and techs deserve to be paid—and paid well.

Now, Disney has a knack for screwing over their creatives: they’re currently failing to pay royalties to a number of authors who have worked for them. (Never heard of #DisneyMustPay? Here’s an article from the Hollywood Reporter, one from The Guardian, and one from Book Riot, as well as this website.) I think that denying actors and creatives their royalties from streaming video—including, but definitely not limited to Black Widow—is part of the same twisted plan. Disney has more than enough money to pay people their due. A Star Wars writer, or a Buffy cartoonist, or a musician on the Black Widow soundtrack—they might not have enough to make their bills.

So, when someone like ScarJo, who has big money and big lawyers, sues a corporation denying her full payment for her labor, don’t just think about the fact that it’s ScarJo, or Emma Stone, or another Rich Fancy Celebrity. This sort of lawsuit will, one hopes, lead to breakthroughs at the bargaining table, to contract language enforceable in arbitration and before the labor board—and, most importantly, to all the people involved in productions getting their fair share of royalties, whether from movie theaters or streaming services.

Because creative work is damn well work, and their labor has value—and should be compensated.