When Composers Go Rogue: How Not to Handle Contract Disputes
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
Merriam-Webster defines "professionalism" as "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person."
In practice, the ability to be seen as a professional is what often constitutes success in business or whatever field or trade you might be in. To be seen as a professional requires a mixture of courtesy, discretion, content knowledge, and communication. The lack of any one of these can serve as a detriment and a liability to one's career, and composers are no exception to this rule.
As composers, we represent a long-standing tradition of music creation that stretches back thousands of years. Despite this history, our industry (and that of the arts in general) is under fire, especially in the realm of film, television, and video games. Live orchestral recordings are consistently replaced by sophisticated sound libraries (to the extent most listeners cannot tell the difference between the two), and original compositions are phased out by the ever-growing (and significantly less creative/unique) stock music collections. There is this pervasive cultural attitude in recent years that seems to stipulate that composers and musicians should continue making music available to the public, but this same attitude refuses to compensate us appropriately for it. Composers that offer their music for free for use on sites like YouTube or Vimeo see their work in more creations than those of us who charge for our music. Combine this with a rise in the number of composers vying for attention, and you get a nasty and undesirable cocktail of competition.
At a time where we need to justify our continued relevance and getting paid (or receiving other meaningful compensation) for our work, we ourselves must be above reproach. We must carry ourselves with dignity and refinement in all aspects of our career befitting our profession. This includes areas of dispute between signatories in contractual matters. Consequently, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle issues of this kind and magnitude.
The right way? Discuss your qualms with a business/studio and take things to court if need be.
The wrong way? Issue DMCA take-down notices against innocent content creators.
At this point, you might be thinking something along the lines of "That seems so bizarre, why would anyone do that?"
The answer takes a bit of explanation.
YouTube has for a long time been apathetic at best when it comes to fraudulent and dishonest use of their DMCA take-down system. DMCA stands for "Digital Millennium Copyright Act". The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a United States digital rights management law enacted in October of 1998 by President Bill Clinton.
The intent behind the DMCA was simple: to create an updated version of copyright laws to deal with the special challenges of regulating digital material in an effort to keep up with the advent and development of the Internet. The DMCA sought to protect the rights of both copyright owners and consumers, but in practice, the DMCA has caused more problems than it's solved. Furthermore, piracy still runs rampant across the digital landscape. The DMCA represents yet another well-meaning but oppressively bureaucratic and inefficient piece of legislation.
So how is this relevant? Well, YouTube developed a system of their own to adhere to federal regulations, but it is largely automated, allowing people to game the system. Combined with an automated "three-strike" policy that doesn't take into account appeals and multiple fraudulent reports made within a short period of time, YouTube content creators in particular can find their channels - and in some cases, their livelihoods - in the crosshairs or completely deleted in a span of 24 hours. To add insult to injury, if you do not have millions of subscribers, you have little recourse of getting your channel back. Thousands of hours of work can be lost in a single moment, and in some cases, this means tens of thousands of dollars lost in sponsorships and ad revenue. This has been an issue for years, and YouTube has not taken adequate steps to rectify it.
With me so far? Okay, let's continue...
Fast forward to this week. Alex Mauer is a digital composer who was hired by Imagos Softworks to contribute to the soundtrack of the game, "Starr Mazer: DSP", which has currently been taken off of the Steam marketplace. Mauer had sent a DMCA notice to Steam, and that's where our story begins.
Mauer has been in in a contractual dispute with Imagos Softworks, in which she alleges that she had not been properly compensated for her work, and such, Mauer holds that the production company used her music unlawfully in the game. Mauer went one step further and then started issuing DMCA notices to any and all content creators she could find that ever played/reviewed the game that included her music. Mauer further suggested that she would only release DMCA claims on affected creators if they went after Imagos on her behalf.
Imagos' lawyer, Leonard French, states unequivocally that "Imagos owns valid copyrights on all their works for which Alex has issued takedowns [and] that Alex has no right to issue takedowns for Imagos and related content."
Mauer went on a meltdown, ranting on the game's forum on Steam and via a long sequence of emails about injustice and how everyone was against her, unleashing a variety of expletives at people who did not take her side. The whole situation has gotten so bad, Imagos Studios released an update on their Kickstarter page.
Multiple YouTubers have the latest sequence of events on their channel, and their video's on the subject are well worth a watch. They summarize everything pretty well. It is my sincerest hope that people do not view the majority of composers in a negative light based on the actions of one wayward individual.
To close, here's my open letter to Alex Mauer:
Ms. Mauer, I now speak directly to you (assuming you even see this blog post in this backwater corner of the world wide web). You're making a grave mistake, and I beg you to see reason. Your actions fly in the face of professionalism and taint the public opinion of composers/musicians everywhere.
Assuming your claims against Imagos Softworks held any merit (something I highly doubt, given my own research into this), you lost any moral high ground you might have had when you targeted innocent content creators on YouTube and Twitch (of whom many were very complimentary of the music on Steam reviews before the game was pulled, based on what I saw). You have lost your credibility with your expletive-ridden rants, complaints, insults, and non sequiturs. You have alienated anybody who might have given you sympathy or support, myself included.
What good has your pursuit of revenge done?
You are now facing a lawsuit, and I sincerely doubt you will ever work in this industry again if you keep this up. I am sure you must realize that our industry of music composition is a small one; everyone knows everybody else in some way or another, and word will get back to potential employers if it hasn't done so already.
I am a concerned colleague who wishes the best for all parties involved, Ms. Mauer. When I see your name in the media, I want to see it connected with success, not negativity such as this. You are better than this! Stop with this reckless course of action while you still can. Take a breath, and pursue a more constructive means of negotiation. Fulfill your responsibility to our profession and cease antagonizing innocent content creators. I am saddened to hear you have been the subject of death threats and vitriolic discourse from certain people, of course, yet I fully and unabashedly denounce your actions of the past couple weeks. Our craft is art, and it is supposed to bring joy to the world; why pollute it with negativity?
I have long been of the mindset that I can never direct, only advise. As such, Ms. Mauer, I hope you may find the information in this open letter to be of use. I wish you all the best, but I cannot stress upon you enough the seriousness of your current situation.
As Franz Liszt once said, "Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist." I hope you may land on the latter side of that, but if you keep down your current path, the opposite will be true.