In what could be a watershed for Germany's legion of dubbing artists, Marcus Off, 53, is demanding €180,000 for his voiceover performance – about 10 times what he was actually paid, the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported Tuesday.
Off has been in a dispute over the issue with the German arm of Disney since 2008. His case is now about to reach the Federal Court where he will argue in effect that he is the part creator of the hugely successful films and therefore is entitled to a share of the massive profits.
“Doing voiceover is acting, plain and simple, even if you only hear the voice,” Off told the paper.
Off's voice has featured in hundreds of foreign films dubbed into German for cinema and television. He is the German voice of such stars as Ralph Fiennes, Sean Penn and British actor Michael Sheen.
The actor did the German voice for Johnny Depp's memorable character Captain Jack Sparrow in the first three instalments of the "Pirates" franchise, which have been seen by an estimated 19.5 million people in German cinemas.
Indeed the films have been a phenomenal success worldwide, grossing more than €2.1 billion. The second installment, "Dead Man's Chest," is the fifth highest-grossing film ever, according to the website Box Office Mojo.
Off claims that his contribution has been important to the films' success in Germany.
He was paid a total of €9,306.14 for his performances in all three, plus a further €8,650 for dubbing the DVD bonus material and TV ads. These sums are well above the standard rate for voiceovers.
Disney has refused his demands and has used another voiceover artist for the fourth film, "On Stranger Tides," prompting an internet petition by Off's fans in Germany.
The case will soon go to the Federal Court, though Off has already lost a case before a Berlin court in June, for which he had to pay legal costs.
The outcome could be a precedent for the sizeable dubbing industry. Unlike many European countries, Germany foreign films and television are dubbed into German rather than running in their original language.
The IVS dubbing artists association, which has nearly 300 members, is supporting Off in his claim and is paying his legal costs, up to €20,000, according to Off.
Off is basing his complaint on a paragraph of the 2002 copyright law, called the “fairness paragraph,” which deals with adequate compensation. The paragraph enables an author to press for an additional claim from the publisher of a work if there is a “demonstrable discrepancy” between the agreed payment to the author and the eventual earnings from the work.
The federal court ruled in January that a publisher needed to ensure the translator of a non-fiction book was adequately compensated based on the sales of the work.
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Off argues that he has not been adequately compensated given the massive success of the "Pirates" films. The question, then, is whether a voiceover artist can be considered on par with an author.
Disney does not believe so. In its original response to Off's complaint, it argued that voiceover actors should be considered no differently than news or radio announcers, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
“In some ways, voiceover speakers make even less of a creative contribution, because they simply imitate the voice and speech of an actor who has already given the text a dramaturgical value,” Disney argued.
However, Off was brought in for the first installment only after Disney had rejected the interpretation by another German Depp-dubber, David Nathan, suggesting the issue is not entirely straightforward.