“Walt Disney Co. did not come to the negotiating table, nor did it act in good faith to resolve this dispute.”
— Nye vs. Walt Disney Corp., et. al
“As the company gets bigger, it’s easy to lose what we stand for.”
— Roy Disney
Two years ago, I wrote a column in this space about a newly filed lawsuit brought by Bill Nye (the Science Guy) against the Walt Disney Company. Two years and several appeals and amendments later, the lawsuit was finally given the green light to proceed by a Los Angeles judge last week.
Nye’s 100 half-hour educational episodes ran, primarily on PBS, from 1993 to 1999, and were distributed by Walt Disney’s Buena Vista Television, winning 19 Emmy Awards, with Nye himself winning once for hosting, once as producer, and three times for writing.
While Nye has taken on some controversial topics in the two decades since Science Guy finished its run, it’s the courtroom, not the classroom, that it his current challenge. That’s because suing Walt Disney is a little like starting a land war in Asia. Unless you have a great battle plan and nearly unlimited resources, your chance of success isn’t high.
Disney has a long and well-earned reputation for being overly litigious. Some 25 years ago, even before the internet age made bootlegging and copyright infringement rampant, Newsweek said that Disney would “sue anybody and anything.” Barron’s said they had a reputation as a “bare-knuckled litigator.” The Jim Henson Co. accused them of “sheer corporate arrogance” in another lawsuit.
So why would Nye choose to pick a fight with Disney? Well, to begin with, there’s a heck of a lot of money at stake. Nye says that Disney owes him $9 million in direct profits and distribution fees, and claims another $28 million in punitive damages for their allegedly outrageous behavior. That’s $37 million reasons to sue.
The lawsuit, pending in Los Angeles Superior Court, claims that Disney owes Nye 16.5% of net profits from the show. It claims that back in 2008, Disney sent Nye a check for $585,123, before they quickly asked for half a million back. According to Nye’s attorneys, he attempted to negotiate with Disney, but they did not provide necessary information and stonewalled an attempt to audit the records. Then, Nye claims, they simply stopped paying royalties at all, which is why Nye claims they owe him so much money. Disney, for their part, denies the allegations.
The attorneys representing the Science Guy have amended their complaint no fewer than four times, and last week the judge green lighted part of the suit and kicked out another part.
Nye will not be able to seek damages for any distribution claims before 2008, but he will be able to sue for everything since, and he can still pursue the $28 million in punitive damages. His lawyer said that he hopes the lawsuit will, “shine some light upon the improper accounting practices that Disney utilizes to unjustly deprive profit participants of their fair share of revenues they work so hard to create.”
Nye’s complaint demands a jury trial, and it’s likely that Disney will want to avoid the public spectacle that a jury trial would become. Still, given that the parties have been unable to negotiate this matter over an 11-year period, finding a mutually agreeable resolution in this matter may prove difficult.
Nye recently had a show on Netflix, and Disney sold about a third of the 1990s “Science Guy” episodes to the streaming service as well — a sale that Nye claims he didn’t get paid for. Those episodes remain on Netflix, but one can’t help but conclude that it’s not at all surprising that Nye is absent from Disney’s new Disney+ service launched last month. Given that six of the eight billion dollar grossing movies of 2019 are Disney products (with a Star Wars film to join that group next week), the mouse house certainly has the cash to settle Nye’s claim if they wish to.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.