Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Bully for Bill! But...

When Universal Press Syndicate told Bill Watterson (creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips excerpted below) that it intended to start selling merchandise based on his work, he said no. Then the syndicate reminded him that he’d signed a contract when he went to work for it that transferred the rights to it, so he had no choice. Watterson told it that, in that case, he’d stop drawing the strip. And did. The company was sufficiently stiff-necked, and disrespectful of Watterson’s inimitable talent, that it tried to have someone else draw the strip. This failed, and the company lost its bid to force Watterson’s hand. But this victory over the pecuniary bullies of corporate art also meant the end of Watterson’s career.

'Calvin and Hobbes' strip

Calvin and Hobbes’ saddest (if probably fake) strip: kind of like when Dorothy went to Oz, only completely the opposite.
[ Image Source ]

But before confronting this corporate monster, as Watterson admits, he had already become a formidable “big gorilla” in his own right. Had this been otherwise, he would almost certainly have been forced to capitulate to the coercive power of money, as billions must do every day merely to survive in a world economy designed to reward the ruthless at the expense of the ethical.

Every day, in nearly every country, this same sordid scenario plays itself out. Two parties sign a contract — a document that the U.S. judicial system is pledged to honor before all things else — and are presumed by the courts to do so as equals. But we know there is no equality when a tenant signs a rental contract, or a worker an employment contract, or an artist a publication contract. Each approaches his contract as, in essence, a take-it-or-leave it proposition: He either accepts what he’s offered — as bad as it usually is — and has a home, a job, a way to sell his art ... or he doesn’t. The other party, meanwhile, holding all the trumps, feels that it has nothing to lose, and treats him with a contempt commensurate to his perceived weakness.

Thereafter, we predictably perceive casual contumely heaped upon the weaker party. A landlord will expect his tenant to maintain the grounds around his house in golf-course order, but care nothing for the fact that the house in which his tenant is expected to live suffers, thanks to years of deferred maintenance, from wet rot, mold, a sewer leak, failed electrical fixtures, water entering by windows and roof and two dozen other ills. A boss will assume that his worker should gladly accept new rules — adopted after his employment — that reduce his pay, that he should be “flexible” enough to work when the company needs him most, that he should defer to ignorant and abusive supervisors, but fire him if he complains or demands overtime pay. And a publisher will expect the “talent” he has “discovered” to reproduce miracles of creativity daily, solely for his own further enrichment, and then remind the “talent” that the legal rights to all of his work belong to the publisher.

And in every case, the stronger party is “right” according to the laws of a country that has also mandated that each corporation make as much money for its shareholders as possible, without concern for what crimes it might commit in doing so. In every case, a judge will hold forth, in a befittingly solemn monotone, upon the rule of law, the sanctity under that law of contracts, and the obligation of the parties to those contracts to abide by them.

Three changes in American corporate and contract law are therefore essential.

Originally published as a review of a article on contract law and its abuses.

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