To say that the world surrounding YouTube and indie gaming is a murky swamp may be the understatement of the year right now. YouTubers have had to deal with the #adpocolypse and the fallout from the over-reaching regulations that YouTube has deemed necessary to become advertiser friendly, and with the number of games exponentially increasing on Steam and services like itch.io, indie developers are finding it even more difficult to stand out.
What really doesn't help either situation, however, is when a copyright system that seems to be dragging behind the times ends up being used as a weapon against content creators and developers. In the battle of content online, the DMCA has become an effective weapon.
To say that the story surrounding everything with Alex Mauer, Starr Mazer: DSP, River City Ransom: Underground, and various YouTubers is complicated ... well that may be an even bigger understatement than my opening paragraph. Yet, here we are, in a mess of accusations, death threats, and now legal battles involving lawsuits and restraining orders.
This is a story that's difficult to handle, as the general public needs to know what is going on; however, more coverage to the issue may just end up enhancing it, as the behavior of the one at the center of the controversy has not only been erratic but has escalated as time has gone on. There are perceived issues surrounding mental health with those involved and given the erratic behavior of one of the players involved, trying to minimize harm of the publication of this article is incredibly difficult.
How can you predict the unpredictable? Nevertheless, our commitment is to the truth of the matter, and that's what the aim of this article is.
A key figure throughout this article is Alex Mauer, a sound/music creator who has been involved in a lot of projects within the gaming industry, including larger games like Need for Speed: Underground and a host of indie titles such as Potatoman Seeks the Troof. She's a veteran of the industry and seemingly had a lot of respect and accolades coming into the year 2016.
My attempts to get Mauer's side of the story regarding the issues discussed in this article didn't go well.
In our back and forth, it was indicated that I didn't care about the "real" story at the core of the issues here. Despite my desire to get questions answered and to assure her that, yes, I cared about the real story, I was given the cold shoulder as I did not ask the right questions that Alex wanted me to ask.
For example, I asked Alex whether she was the source of the DMCA claim made on River City Ransom: Underground (discussed later) and if she had documentation/information to show that the rights were on her side in terms of copyright. These simple questions to establish the base data of the story were not the right ones that Mauer wanted me to ask, and I stuck to my guns when she attempted to get me to change or reword the questions.
Now, I will go on record saying that Mauer did contact me after Destructoid published their article, indicating that her unwillingness to talk to me had to do with "[creating] a competitive environment to see who wanted to do the story the most." She said that phase was over, and that she's available for comment and interview.
While I have sent additional information and questions for her to answer, I did not want to delay the story more. So keep this in mind going forward, as almost 90% of the information in this article is from the other side of the conflict and doesn't include Mauer's direct comment. I will still be trying to talk with Mauer to get her side and if something comes of it, a new article or interview will accompany this one.
Before I dive right into the deep end, let me first start this article off by saying that a lot of the credit for the situation even being covered at all should be sent over to SidAlpha, who focuses on consumer-focused issues within the video gaming industry. He's been the go-to guy surrounding everything in this insane issue, and a ton of the information in here is thanks to him doing the legwork and getting the answers from people.
The Beginning: Starr Mazer: DSP
The whole situation started back in 2016 with a game called Starr Mazer: DSP produced by Imagos Softworks. It's a standard horizontal shoot em up in early access that doesn't necessarily do anything revolutionary with the genre but is definitely solid in the gameplay department. However, in February 2017, Starr Mazer: DSP found itself taken off the Steam store for ... well, a time. This was due to the DMCA claims made by Alex Mauer.
Mauer and Imagos Softworks worked things out in February, with the game being restored at some point in March. However, Starr Mazer: DSP was removed again, by Imagos Softworks themselves, for a period of time, to try to take care of some of the remaining music from Mauer that was in the project, and a third time in June to get rid of the remaining sound. The reason for this was simple: to avoid any further problems with Mauer and future claims, as it looked like Imagos Softworks was trying to head things off before they became a bigger issue not only for them but some of the people tangentially related to the game—YouTubers in particular. Sadly, that foresight did not make a difference, as you'll find out shortly.
That last removal on Steam (the one that occurred in June) corresponded with various videos surrounding the game being DMCA'd from YouTube. From the list of videos that was obtained through SidAlpha, most of them were Let's Plays of various styles, whether it be more entertainment value or more critical commentary for consumer focus. These creators started to receive copyright strikes claimed by Alex Mauer. These claims by her were the spark that led to a giant mess of accusations, threats on people's lives, and general chaos.
The issue at hand seems to be related to financial compensation for the work done by Mauer on the project. To provide some information to prove their side of the story, Imagos Softworks has shown a redacted version of the contract they signed with Alex Mauer, with obviously sensitive information blurred out. After reading this contract, a couple of things become clear.
The contract clearly states within the Ownership section that "There shall be no ownership of control on the part of the Contractor in the Production unless otherwise explicitly expressed in writing." Furthermore, the contract within the Work for Hire section indicates that the production company, that being Imagos Softworks, owns "all results and proceeds of Contractor's services rendered here under in perpetuity to use for all purposes, including without limitation to the exploitation of the Picture or otherwise."
The contract was signed by Alex Mauer on 3/9/2015.
In email correspondence with SidAlpha, however, Alex Mauer did respond, indicating that the contract was to use her work in Starr Mazer but not Starr Mazer: DSP.
The claim being that the contract is null and void due to it not being with an agreement on the actual game produced. However, as stated by the contract, those rights were given up in the Work for Hire section, indicating that the ownership was Imagos Softworks'. Furthermore, it even indicates that there was no limitation on how they could use those rights.
However, in a following letter from Alex's attorney, he makes an argument that because the contract wasn't specific as a "work made for hire," the assumption of works created for one specific project can't apply to a general "work made for hire" status on additional works for an entirely separate project without additional signed writings. At one point during this, Alex posted the Starr Mazer OST she created on her Bandcamp and her personal website. That was taken down in short order, but it's unclear if that's via DMCA or Alex herself.
I do want to give some information on the difference between Starr Mazer and Starr Mazer: DSP, as no, they are not the same game. Starr Mazer is a combination of a point and click with a shoot em up, while Starr Mazer: DSP is a shoot 'em up with roguelite progression elements.
As of right now, the issue regarding Starr Mazer: DSP hasn't been fully settled, but I'll get to that later in the article. Starr Mazer: DSP came about after members of Imagos Softworks were working with Pixeljam and put up some shoot 'em up ideas and concepts, with a desire for an action title based in Starr Mazer's Great War to serve as a companion game.
At this time, my understanding is that Starr Mazer: DSP has all elements of Alex Mauer's work removed from the current product.
YouTubers and Twitch Feel The Wrath of DMCA
What's disturbing about the back and forth between Imagos Softworks and Alex Mauer is how YouTubers were used as a form of ammunition to put pressure on the developer.
Not only did Alex target the developers she had a major problem with, but she targeted those creators who played Starr Mazer: DSP as well, claiming content on YouTube and putting copyright strikes on several channels. Copyright strikes are no joke on YouTube, as even one can severely limit what a creator can do on the site, and three can shut them down permanently. Now, the DMCA system on YouTube has had a lot of critics over the last several years, myself included, but its purpose is to legitimately stop content, such as full movies, getting onto the site and being stolen from the creators who put their soul into their works. Unfortunately, the DMCA has also been used as a weapon to censor creators, as well as go after creators out of sheer spite. Those like Tariq Nasheed falsely use the system to censor criticism they don't like. While in Nasheed's case it ended with him being thrown off YouTube, it still is a stressful process for those affected and some of those don't get so lucky, leaving permanent scars on their channels and reputation.
I do want to indicate going forward that someone who has their work "taken" from them and used on YouTube is basically between a rock and a hard place when it comes to resolving any copyright issues.
Hypothetically, let's say a work of yours, a piece of music you developed, was taken by someone and used in their game. As the music's creator you would want to try to reestablish your copyright on your own music by filing a claim. However, once YouTubers/third party work gets involved, it becomes massively complicated. The creators of the YouTube video would have used your work that was in the game, but they would have done it not necessarily knowing that you work was taken. Basically, they aren't necessarily the ones at fault for "stealing" your music, as it came along with the game they purchased that they then made a video/other content on, and they may not have known that the work had a copyright claim on it. No matter what you do as the music creator to rectify that situation, you are going have a negative outcome, whether it be taking down the work of people who fairly used the music (like the YouTubers) or having your work get out there without proper compensation for the music that you created in the game. That music could be something that draws someone to purchase the game or want to purchase the track outright, and this leaves you as the music creator out of luck considering the situation.
Now, there are good ways and bad ways to go about handling a complicated situation like this, and as I will discuss in a second, it looks like Mauer went about it in the wrong way.
Over 70 videos were hit with claims from Mauer regarding Starr Mazer: DSP.
Now, in the case of those affected, SidAlpha attempted to help the situation by appealing to Mauer and indicating the problems that these strikes would cause for the channel. Mauer did not budge on the issue, indicating that those affected needed to put pressure on the developer, Imagos Softworks, despite them not being the source of the strikes. It seems this was to put pressure on Imagos to give in to Mauer's position.
Regardless of whether or not Imagos or Mauer is in the right in that specific dispute, Mauer's abuse of the copyright system when Fair Use is clear in several of the cases (the review/critical commentary cases) is abusing the system and the way it was designed. Those in the YouTube gaming community attempted to help the situation including John Bain, aka TotalBiscuit, who contacted YouTube directly to help try to get the issue escalated.
Even those who did actually comply with the requests found themselves still used as a weapon. Mah-Dry-Bread is the prime example of this. With it being one of his only sources of income, Mah Dry Bread complied to Mauer's removal of videos of River City Ransom Underground on his channel, removing several videos in the series that weren't initially hit with a copyright strike.
The thing is, if a video is hit by the copyright strike, you cannot delete it until the copyright strike is removed. Despite complying with the request to remove the videos from the channel and asking if the copyright could be removed so he could remove the other one, Mah Dry Bread was told no, the strike would stay on the video. This despite a seemingly verbal agreement to Mauer's terms and attempts to give Mauer what she wanted.
Videos that Alex Mauer agreed to be a part of have been claimed by her as well. Musical Anti Hero, a smaller YouTuber focused on a variety of gaming related content, contacted Mauer and had a text interview with her. He then produced the video using the contents of the exchange back and forth (which, from what was shown, there was no indication that the interview contents couldn't be published nor confidentiality claimed). It looked at the responses from Mauer and attempted to bring some meaningful commentary and discussion to the situation.
Alex did not take kindly to the video, however, and issued a copyright strike on it.
The reason she put forward was that an old photograph of her before her gender transition was used in the video, and she was extremely sensitive to it being there. She requested the picture taken off the video, but after 12 hours of the video being up, she reported it. She indicated that because the picture came from her camera, she owned the copyright. That is not how copyright works as if the picture was posted to the Internet in a public manner, it was fair use for Musical Anti Hero to use for reporting related purposes.
Don't overlook the Twitch streamer portion of this either. While it's rarer, a copyright claim on Twitch actually temporarily bans you from the service, at least until the issue is sorted out. Sure enough, several Twitch streamers found themselves unable to work as Mauer also hit them with claims.
HyperRPG, a twitch channel with over 40,000 followers at the time of this article, found themselves banned during one of the biggest events in the gaming world: E3. Needless to say, them being down during this time hit the channel pretty hard, with a reasonable amount of potential revenue lost.
The Legal Battle
Eventually, the issues regarding Imagos Softworks and Alex Mauer boiled over into an actual legal battle. But it may surprise you that the plantiff in the case is actually Imagos Softworks. The firm is being represented by Leonard French, a copyright attorney with an informative YouTube channel.
Prior to this incident, I was following Leonard as he did a great job of breaking down several issues regarding copyright/fair use battles, such as Purple Mattress, and I'd recommend following his informative videos. However, Mr. French is directly involved in the litigation between Imagos Softworks and Alex Mauer, which you can see the details of the case here. The public documents give some insight into perceived behavior changes in Alex's character and what led to the litigation.
Basically, Imagos Softworks contracted Alex at the start of 2015 for music and sound purposes, and things were going smoothly. However, based on the document, in 2016 things began to change, and Alex requested time off for medical reasons. The owner, Don, granted the request and even reached out to try to help Alex with whatever issues she was going through. At some point during this, Alex decided to voluntarily leave the project, which was disappointing but understood by Imagos Softworks.
Except shortly afterward, Alex started to become demanding of the company, claiming that she wasn't paid the amount for the work she had done and she owned rights to Starr Mazer. Any attempts to negotiate with Alex failed, and it started to affect their business dealings.
Now keep in mind this was in 2016, a year or so ago, well before the issues regarding copyright and YouTube were involved. Imagos Softworks was doing all they could to comply with Alex's requests, but Alex was starting to deeply affect their business dealings to the point where the development team was feeling the stress of the issues she was putting on the company.
In addition, financers related to the Starr Mazer project started to pull out due to the issues she was creating behind the scenes. Imagos Softworks had to put development on hold in December 2016 due to these problems. However, it became clear that when Alex started to go after YouTubers, who weren't even part of Imagos Softworks business, they needed to take more action to secure the copyrights they owned.
That's where the gofundme for the legal battle comes into play, with the primary goal to establish Imagos' rights and the community's rights to publish Starr Mazer and Star Mazer: DSP. They've also indicated that they would like to see Alex get help for her situation. They are asking for financial support due to the court costs associated with the case, which is to help establish and restore the rights of the community related to the Starr Mazer franchise.
The case could help in stabilize development for the affected games with a decision in favor of Imagos Softworks, as development has been tumultuous due to the many issues discussed here. As for what this could mean for YouTubers and their rights going forward, it may serve as one of the first court cases to specifically discuss the rights of third party creators when it comes to video game Let's Plays/YouTube videos. While I'm unsure how much it will do in the overall picture (as fair use is a defense for those creators, but it's not the company going after them but a third party related to it), it could be used as a reference to shape/fix some of the issues with YouTube's copyright system and the DMCA system as a whole if it were to be overhauled.
One other note: due to possible damage that could still happen to YouTubers during this litigation, Imagos Softworks asked for a temporary restraining order on Alex Mauer in regards to copyright claims on their content, which was granted. This temporary restraining order means that DMCA claims can't be made on Starr Mazer: DSP videos by Mauer going forward. In addition, all of the DMCAs related to Starr Mazer: DSP mentioned in the prior section have to been overturned.
The Threats and the Mental Toll
Now there's been one other problem in all of this, which unfortunately is a common occurrence when it comes to complicated issues online regarding the gaming world. Whether it be people who are overly passionate about the issues at hand and let it come across in the words directly to the subjects themselves or be it just trolls, several people have gone too far in this case and started to threaten those involved. Almost all parties involved in this—whether it be Alex Mauer herself, Imagos Softworks, or even reporters reporting on the events—have seen some form of threats during this time, including death threats.
Alex Mauer has posted constant threats and harassment directed towards her on her Twitter account as well as shown them to several others, including SidAlpha. Several of the comments focus on transgender issues surrounding Alex Mauer, which has nothing to do with the litigation at hand, but has become an issue nonetheless in some people's eyes. Whether they truly have a problem with the transgender side of Mauer or are poking at an insecurity to try to get her riled up, that's anyone's guess.
At one point in this whole timeline, it did look like some of the issues that Mauer was facing did cause her to get help. She was placed in an involuntary psychiatric hold (known as a 302) in Pennsylvania. However, that didn't last long, as she was released, which indicated that she no longer served a threat to herself or others; she apparently cut off communication with her family in the process.
Unfortunately, this meant that Mauer went right back to issuing DMCAs, although focusing on other targets than Starr Mazer: DSP (timeline wise, the restraining order hadn't hit when she was asked to get help). But her behavior has seemingly gotten worse as time has gone on, which leads us to the other side of the aisle.
SidAlpha, the main reporter in this situation, has repeatedly had to tell people to stop death threats against Mauer, showing that he still cared about the issues that Mauer was going through and was trying to help. Despite his best attempts to do that, he unfortunately also got death threats ... from Mauer herself. Sid talks about the threat against him in a video below. This is only one of several death threats issued by Mauer, as she indicated in an email to Leonard French that she wanted to "F***ING KILL YOU" and implied that the knowledge of French's and SidAlpha's addresses would be "amazing."
Death threats are never right. Let me repeat that. Death threats are never right.
But what's been disturbing about this situation is how people didn't even check that they were sending death threats to the right person. That does not justify it whatsoever, but it is curious that those who were attempting to threaten Mauer ended up sending threats to an email labeled as Lindsay at Imagos Softworks, who was trying to help those affected by the DMCA claims on YouTube get those issues sorted out.
In addition, from those who I talked to on the situations with both Starr Mazer and River City Ransom: Underground, it was mentioned that some were concerned about the fact that Alex Mauer via the DMCA claim had their personal information—their name and address—and that she would make that information public via doxxing.
This is something that YouTube must address IMMEDIATELY. Those looking to damage and hurt YouTubers on the site have a viable way of getting information from them in a case where the user's name and address have nothing to do with the core problem at hand. I'm not sure how a company that has indicated they need to do more to protect their viewers/YouTubers from harm still allows this to happen.
But it has become clear that information is not only damaging to get out there but will cause people to self-censor themselves if they think their life or family's life is in danger.
Other Targets: River City Ransom: Underground and More
Now, I wish that this story would have ended with cooler heads prevailing, but given the chaos that has happened up to this point, you know that was a foolish thought on my part. Because on July 13th, 2017, the developers behind River City Ransom: Underground, Conatus Creative, indicated that their game had been removed from Steam. It seems that Alex Mauer made a DMCA claim on the game, and once again YouTubers who played the game on their channels also found themselves on the end of DMCA strikes from Mauer.
Mauer via an interview given to a Destructoid writer indicates that she did issue the DMCA orders, stating that Conatus never got her written permission to use her music in the game. Mauer stated that "As far as I know, they have Disasterpeace's (one of the game's composers) signature and trying to act like that alone is enough to have secured rights)." Now, unlike the situation with Starr Mazer: DSP, there is no documentation or information on the side of River City Ransom: Underground that indicates that the contract was work for hire. In emails received by SidAlpha, Mauer indicates that up to a third of the music within the game is her work.
In addition, as shown by SidAlpha videos, the removal of the game from Steam came one week after a warning from Valve to Alex Mauer regarding DMCA take down requests. This means that Valve seemingly did do their homework on this one considering the time frame and decided that they did need to take down the game. Or at least that's what it looks like at first glance. I have not received confirmation from Conatus on the status of the contract or the work done by Mauer at the time of reporting this article. I will update the piece when I get their comment.
However, as pointed out by Leonard French, a lot of work for hire when it's not "clear via text" seems to have case law associated with it. In a court case in 1939 regarding Yardley v. Houghton Miffin, French's intpretation is as follows: " Focusing on the original term, we ruled that, although the contract commissioning the artist's work was silent as to which party would hold the copyright, and although the artist had included a copyright notice in his favor on the painting, this term belonged to the City because it had commissioned the artist to paint the mural."
River City Ransom: Underground and Starr Mazer: DSP are the games most affected by Mauer's claims, but they are not the only games that were targeted. Duck Game, a popular party shoot everything until it's dead game, had its trailer removed from the Adult Swim channel. Mauer indicated that a pending copyright registration on the song Duck Killer was being created in preparation for a court order. Now, it should be noted here that she did not work on the actual in-game content for Duck Game, she only worked on the trailer. This is why you don't see any claim on the actual game on Steam.
In addition, the Jazzpunk trailer was taken offline due to a claim that she made. What's confusing about this one is that I see no information pointing to the fact that Mauer was involved with Jazzpunk in any sort of way. Sadly, I can't ask the source of the claim due to Mauer not wanting to answer my questions, but based on research, it looks like she was involved in the game's trailer: which also was produced by Imagos Softworks. As to the actual game, a sound designer for Jazzpunk indicated that Mauer had nothing to do with the in-game content. Death Road To Canada also had a trailer taken down at one point, related to the live action version of the trailer (which Imagos Softworks worked on). No in game music/sound was done by Mauer. That version is still down, and may be tied up in the problems with Imagos Softworks.
It's also been indicated that Potatoman Seeks the Troof (by Pixeljam Games) has also had claims made on it as shown via Lumen database; that claim made on the Vimeo service. Mauer seems to have done the work on Malik for that specific case. That claim includes two other works: The Catastrophe at Catalina and Legend of Dungeon. For Legend of Dungeon, it seems the Legend of Party trailer associated with the game is hit. However, it should be noted that the YouTube version of this trailer seems to be unaffected. As for The Catastrophe at Catalina, this is a video work by Imagos Softworks, although I'm unsure at this time what exactly Mauer did for this piece in particular.
As of now, there is still a lot left in the saga that will be coming up in the weeks to come, and I will do my best for TechRaptor to report on those issues and everything surrounding this scenario. However, I would once again indicate that there are good resources to keep up to the minute with the latest in these affairs, with YouTubers like SidAlpha leading the charge.
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