A copyright claim by a composer with a tendency to attract legal drama has led Steam to remove the game River City Ransom: Underground. The developers are disputing the claim and say they expect the game to be back on Steam at some point in the future.
On Friday, July 14th, Steam removed River City Ransom: Underground due to a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim filed by composer Alex Mauer. In the claim, Mauer said that music she produced for the game was being used without her permission.
Mauer told Kotaku over the phone that she worked on the soundtrack for River City Ransom: Underground with two collaborators, Rich Vreeland and Dino Leonetti, but was “cut out of the deal.” She says that her work is still in the game, and that Conatus Creative, the development studio, does not own the rights to it. “The problem is that they haven’t gotten my permission,” she said. “They can easily get my permission, but they need to be transparent with me about whatever deal they made regarding the music.” Mauer said that there is no documentation proving that she made this arrangement with Conatus but that the lack of a contract is, “kind of my whole argument.”
In a statement posted on Steam this evening, Daniel Crenna, founder and a producer at Conatus Creative, says that Mauer’s claims about the music in the game violating her copyright are false. “She is a co-creator of the music, with Dino Lionetti and Rich Vreeland. Our written license agreement is with Rich, who subcontracted Alex and Dino,” he wrote. “When Rich offered to pay Alex an equal share of the music fee for her contribution to the game soundtrack, she emailed back: ‘oh that’s awesome man i’m all for it thanks!’ Rich has shown us the documentation that Alex was paid in full.”
While Crenna writes that their lawyers have told them that there is no legal basis for Mauer’s claims, they will be commissioning a new soundtrack for the game. “Being legally right is only half the story – as a practical matter, the costs of legal action would put console development plans on hold, perhaps indefinitely,” he wrote. “We don’t have any interest in spending our time and our energy dealing with this matter further.”
Mauer has developed a reputation for filing copyright claims against video games she says failed to give her proper credit. In February, her claims led Steam to remove a different game, Starr Mazer: DSP, over a contract dispute. Mauer says that the developer of that game, Imagos Softworks, did not have the rights to use her music in Starr Mazer: DSP or its marketing materials. “The problem is that Imagos did so much of their business with me without signing any contracts and they managed to create a situation where they owe me a large amount of money,” she said. “So I started escalating the situation through the DMCAs.” She also took action against YouTube videos and Twitch streams containing footage of Starr Mazer: DSP, attracting the ire of critics like Jim Sterling and John “Totalbiscuit” Bain.
Imagos disputed Mauer’s characterization, writing in court filings that she had asked for time off and eventually chose to left the Imagos team. “Then, suddenly Alex became demanding,” wrote Imagos. “Alex claimed that she wasn’t paid and that she had rights to Starr Mazer and others of Plaintiff’s Works. [Imagos director Don Thacker] tried to resolve the matter, making several offers to Alex. Alex didn’t seem interested in any resolution whatsoever... Alex was a contributor to a larger audiovisual work, under written contract, and with an express work-for-hire clause. Plaintiffs’ video games and related content are therefore Plaintiffs’ property.”
Mauer has also attracted a great deal of harassment, as various internet forums detail her every move and send nasty messages her way.
Imagos Softworks is currently suing Mauer. Last week, a Pennsylvania judge granted a temporary restraining order against Mauer that blocks her from filing more DMCA claims against that game and its related works.
Mauer has also filed DMCA takedown notices against YouTube and Twitch videos for River City Ransom: Underground. These copyright strikes are serious business on those video networks, where just one or two takedowns can make life hell for anyone who tries to make money by streaming and playing games.
Crenna told Kotaku over email that he expects River City Ransom: Underground to come back to Steam. The game is still available on GOG.
UPDATE (7/19, 9:44am): After the publication of this story, several people pointed us to a message from Imagos Softworks’ lawyer, Leonard French, claiming that Mauer had sent him death threats. We reached out to Mauer about this and she confirmed that it was true. She said that she had been receiving her own set of threats in the wake of claims by French and other YouTubers, which she reported to the police. “The police told me it was ok for these people to make death threats to me because of freedom of speech,” she said in a private Twitter message. “So my immediate response was to issue death threats to the people who started the defamation crusade against me.”
UPDATE (7/20, 10:38am): This story has been updated with further details from Imagos’ lawsuit against Alex Mauer.
Note: An earlier version of this story said that Mauer had not worked on Starr Mazer: DSP. That has since been corrected.