Harlan Ellison sues CBS-Paramount, WGA over Star Trek royalties

Correction — May 9, 2018
Contrary to this article, Ellison was credited for The City on the Edge of Forever under his own name rather than a pseudonym. (See collaboration discussion.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Harlan Ellison addresses fans at a convention in 2006. Photo: David Dyer-Bennet

Science fiction author Harlan Ellison announced, in a press release dated March 13, 2009, that he is suing television company CBS Paramount Television for failure to pay residuals to Ellison for the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever". Ellison is also suing writers' union the Writers Guild of America, west (WGA), of which he is a member, for failing to diligently pursue Ellison's royalties from Paramount.

In a strongly and colorfully worded press release, Ellison and his lawyer alleged that Paramount had failed to pay the author, who wrote the 1967 television episode under the pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird", royalties on derivative works such as tie-in novels based on the story as well as merchandise based on the episode such as a 2004 talking Christmas ornament which recited lines from the episode.

The suit comes two months before the release of a film, titled simply "Star Trek", which will re-launch the longstanding multimedia science-fiction franchise. The film will be the first original, official Star Trek video material since the series "Star Trek: Enterprise" was canceled in mid-2005. CBS Paramount is also gearing up for the April release of the first series of Star Trek, including "City on the Edge of Forever", on Blu-Ray high-definition disc.

It ain’t about the ‘principle,’ friend, its about the MONEY! Pay Me!

—Harlan Ellison, press release

Ellison, however, states: "And please make sure to remember, at the moment some Studio mouthpiece calls me a mooch, and says I’m only pursuing this legal retribution to get into their ‘deep pockets,’ tell’m Ellison snarled back, ‘F- - - -in’-A damn skippy!’ I’m no hypocrite. It ain’t about the ‘principle,’ friend, its[sic] about the MONEY! Pay Me! Am I doing this for other writers, for Mom (still dead), and apple pie? Hell no! I’m doing it for the 35-year-long disrespect and the money!"

The suit is not the first time contention has arisen between Ellison and Star Trek since he wrote the episode. In 1995 the author, in the book Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever, accused Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry of "demented lies" about the episode. He also stated at the time: "I've never seen more than a pittance from 'The City on the Edge of Forever,' while every thug and studio putz and semiliterate bandwagon-jumper and merchandiser has grown fat as a maggot in a corpse off what I created."

Roddenberry, who died in 1991, stated in numerous interviews that Ellison's original script was unsuitable for reasons of content and budget, and rewrote it heavily; a dissatisfied Ellison chose to have a pseudonym appear on the final version. The episode as aired won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, while Ellison's original script won a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Hour-Long Script.

Ellison's suit against the WGA West, meanwhile, is for the symbolic amount of one dollar. He asserts he is seeking "a judicial determination as to whether the WGA is doing what its stated purpose has been since day-one! To fight and negotiate for him and other writers. To obtain misappropriated, withheld, hidden earnings, no matter how minuscule or difficult to retrieve – but HIS, nonetheless." Ellison took part in picketing during the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike.

Requests for comment from CBS-Paramount and the WGA were not returned.

Harlan Ellison became established in the science fiction community in the 1950s and won awards and acclaim for short work such as the 1969 novella "A Boy and his Dog" and the 1967 short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream". He has also been the plaintiff in several high-profile lawsuits, suing a person who posted some of his copyrighted work on Usenet along with the ISPs hosting the work in 2000 and in 2006 suing Fantagraphics for defamation; Ellison won the first lawsuit and settled the second. Also in 2006, he controversially groped the breast of fellow author Connie Willis at the 64th World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles during the presentation of Willis's Hugo Award; Ellison later apologized for the incident.