LOS ANGELES (AP)- History was made today, as a controversial ruling by the California Supreme Court appears to set a major precedent for dissolving the boundaries between fantasy and reality in public discourse across the world, as well as providing the gravest threat to the entire entertainment industry it may ever be forced to face.
In response to a petition made by a group of so-called “animated cartoon characters”, who claim not only to have been dismissed without prior warning by their previous employers, but also to have had sensitive, personal material used without their permission within the context of the films and television series in which they had been “forced” to participate, Judge Morley Callaghan indicated that he saw no reason why the appeal should not be heard by the federal Supreme Court. Callaghan indicated that, regardless of the nebulous status of the plaintiffs’ existence as “fictional characters”, as was repeatedly indicated by opposing counsel, there were genuine issues regarding improper financial compensation and invasion of privacy that could not be resolved by internal arbitration between the plaintiffs and their ex-employers, and could only be dealt with the kind of objective reasoning which the Supreme Court could provide.
This verdict reflects the first major legal victory for “fictional” beings in the American legal system, as they had previously been ignored and stymied because existing copyright and trademark legislation established only the rights and abilities of the putative “owners” of the existences of fictional beings, and not those beings themselves. Callaghan indicated in his ruling that it was unconstitutional for the rights and existences of fictional beings to be established and set by people who were not those beings, and that the production companies, film studios and television networks who had previously employed the beings were liable to pay huge sums in both current and retroactive compensation to the plaintiffs. However, he reserved judgement on an actual numerical figure, which he believed the federal Court was more qualified to determine, and suggested that the case be passed on to that body.
That this decision has caused a major uproar in the American entertainment industry is putting it mildly. Advocates for the “reality” of media narratives are heartened that the “humanity” of even the most outlandish and unlikely figures in the entertainment field has now been firmly established in legal precedent, and that no future media production can occur without this “humanity” be considered as a production factor. They believe this is a major advance for the cause of human rights in the American entertainment industry, and will thus serve as an example to the media in other countries.
However, producers and executives in all forms of visual media production are outraged, and insist that they will firmly fight any local or national efforts to create legislation that will force them to abide by the Callaghan decision. They believe that, by recognizing the rights of “fictional” characters as human, they will not only be forced to pay standard, regular wages to the characters currently under their employ, as well as make massive retroactive payments to characters previously employed in programming. Likewise, they will also be forced to make similarly high payments to characters whose images were licensed for commercial gain extensively in the past without their permission. All this, as they rationally indicate, will bankrupt the industry and prevent it from further functioning in the form it currently exists.
“This is an insane and irrational decision,” remarked Producers Guild of America Chairman Herschel Weingarten upon revelation of the verdict. “Fictional people do not have the same rights as real people. We exist all the time; they exist only when allowed to exist. And now they say we may have to pay them for all the “work” they did for “free”. But you can’t pay people for work they didn’t do. In that case, it was the animators that did all the work, not the characters. And those animators ask for too much money as it is, considering how slipshod some of their work it is. I’m not a genius or anything, but I know you can’t give money to people if they never worked for you, like I said. And, regardless of what these folks are saying, we technically never interacted with them at all, much less worked with them. So why should we have to pay them off as if we did?”
When Weingarten was pressed for an explanation of how the decision could bankrupt Hollywood, he added this blunt assessment:
“Look at it this way. You’re operating a studio. You have to put out a certain number of movies and TV shows every year to remain financially solvent. You have just enough overhead to make a tiny profit at best, and just enough to meet your payroll. And then, suddenly, these two-dimensional image people come out of the woodwork, demanding to be paid- in full- for the “work” they- or, rather, you- did bringing them into existence. They swarm all over you like freeloading relatives and fair weather friends who profit from your gains without contributing to them- and the law is on their side, or so it seems here. Not just salaries, but damned retroactive compensation, yet. The minimum wage alone is excessively high now, and judges and juries can find for excessively high compensation sums now. You know what kind of money that means? Billions!
“We’re as much within our rights asserting our rights as producers as they are in asserting whatever damn “humanity” they say they have. They’ll find that out the hard way.”
Yet a contrary position exists within the members of the animated cartoon character community, who insist that, minor compensation payments notwithstanding, they have been living in a situation of legalized slavery for decades. They are, they insisted, overworked and underpaid for the majority of the time in which they are employed, and then, without notice, are summarily fired and left to fend for themselves, without pensions and retirement benefits. And these periods last for far longer than the average two-to-three year period of employment, with some periods of employment lasting for far shorter periods.
One of the petitioners, who gave her name simply as Goat, made a particularly blunt statement regarding the average character’s situation to this reporter.
“We have to go to university like anybody else to learn how to be cut-ups out here,” she said. “University means debts. Living somewhere means you’re paying rent. Et cetera. The producers have never been where we come from, and I doubt they ever will come to visit, so they’ll never know what we really have to go through to try and have a steady career here, such as it is. And they make it considerably more difficult when they don’t compensate us with what everybody needs to live. You know the kind of extreme injuries and stuff we go through in the films, huh? Well, there ain’t no stunt people to do the difficult work there- that’s all us. And that crap hurts. But they like to deny that there’s a problem ‘cause they always make us go around with a smile on our face, like everything’s okay and there’s nothing we can’t solve with a bit of no-how on our part. So you only get that side of our lives, and not that one, ‘cause that’s all let us be.
“Not anymore, pal. Now they know we’re real. And they’ll have to start coughing up for what they forced to go through without pay or nothing. We aren’t asking for any stupid, insane amount of money- we just want to be paid the same as any other live actor would in the same situation. And besides- once they finally divide up the settlement, if something like that happens, it won’t be enough to even pay our rents!”
The Supreme Court justices had no comment on the lower court ruling, and, in any event, could not guarantee that they would be hearing the case at all in the foreseeable future.