The Irish author of the final passages of the best-selling computer game in history says he is “formally liberating it from the corporate capitalist economy and placing it in the gift economy”.
Julian Gough, who wrote the End Poem to Minecraft “Survival mode” more than a decade ago, says he was prompted to make the text freely available in part because of contractual issues with the creators of the game and Microsoft, which bought the rights for more than $2 billion in 2014.
Minecraft is a 3D modelling software, sometimes described as “online Lego”, that allows users to create and build worlds – and almost anything within them. In Survival mode, players also collect resources and battle in order to survive.
In a lengthy post on his website this week, the author says that while he wrote the conclusion of Minecraft, he “never signed a contract giving [the games company] the rights” to his work, which means Microsoft does not own it. But “rather than sue the company or fight with my old friend, who founded the company ... I am dedicating the poem to the public domain”.
Gough outlines how he came to write the end of the game and how his relationship with the Minecraft creator and the people around him deteriorated into “arguments, unsigned contracts [and] hurt feelings”.
Gough makes it clear that the story is “sadder and more complicated” than a good-guy-vs-bad-guys narrative and stresses that, ultimately, “nobody is the bad guy, which is why it took me so many years to work out what the problem even was”.
Minecraft was created by Markus Persson, better known online as Notch, in 2009. In October 2011 he was getting ready to launch the official version of the game in Las Vegas. His indie games company, Mojang, had sold 5,000 tickets for the launch event, but he still didn’t have an ending.
Persson posted on Twitter looking for someone to “write a silly over-the-top out-of-nowhere text for when you win Minecraft”. He was then put in touch with Gough, an acclaimed, award-winning author and the former frontman of the Irish band Toasted Heretic.
“I was intensely aware that this was a very personal game for Markus, very much his vision, and so I asked him did he have anything in mind, any guidelines? He said he had no idea; he just felt that killing the Ender Dragon should trigger a narrative of some kind that would wrap up the game. But he wasn’t a word guy, and hadn’t a clue what that narrative should say. That was why he wanted me to get involved. So I had total freedom,” Gough writes.
When he submitted the finished version of his ending to the Minecraft creator, days later, Gough was told that he had “articulated [Persson’s] philosophy of life better than he could ever have articulated it himself. I asked him if I should cut it, because it was very long for something that was supposed to scroll up the screen at the end of a game. (It took about 9 minutes.) But he didn’t want to change a word. So all of that was wonderful.”
Gough was then put in touch with another Mojang representative about being paid for his contribution.
What Gough admits was a “weird back-and-forth email conversation” in which he “just misunderstood what was going on” then took place. The author acknowledges that he would have been better advised to pass the conversation on to his agent. But he didn’t, and it ran into the weeds. “Because we hadn’t really agreed on anything. We’d simply had a failed attempt to find a fair price for using my work as part of Minecraft.
“Bear in mind, here we were a couple of weeks before the official launch, and Minecraft was already a phenomenon: in its unfinished state, it had already sold five or six million copies, in beta, at $15 a copy. So it was, at that point, already a hundred-million-dollar game, but with no ending, that desperately needed an ending in time for the official launch. What’s the fair price for that? And what form should payment take? Who the hell knows.”
The company paid Gough €20,000 and made “a vague promise to help promote my other work”, Gough says. He was then sent the money despite no written contract being in place.
He says he was delighted to get the money out of the blue, “because I was beyond broke”.
But there was still no written contract. When a contract arrived, weeks later, the game had been out for a month. Gough describes his feelings at this point: “How could I give meaningful consent to a contract I didn’t even get a chance to see before they’d used my story? Plus, I was deeply unhappy with how the whole conversation [went]. I felt we’d failed to communicate, and probably needed to start again. So ... I didn’t sign the contract.”
Sales of the game continued to grow. Then, in August 2014, Gough received an email from the company that said it was “doing a bit of housekeeping, and we’ve realised you never signed that contract we sent you. Could you just sign it now, and send it back.”
The Irish author then took the time to read the contract. “It was worse than I’d even imagined. It was horrible. The contract was for a comprehensive buyout, signing away all my rights forever, which was exactly the thing I’d told [Mojang] that I never did with my work.”
He decided not to sign it, but did wonder why contact had been made years after the game had been published. Then he found out, “from a leaked story on the internet”, that Microsoft was buying Minecraft for $2.5 billion.
Gough says Mojang couldn’t prove it owned the ending to the game because, in his view, the company didn’t own the ending: “I had never signed away any rights at all. Markus just had my informal permission to use it, on loan, in his indie game for PC and Mac. That was all I had ever agreed to, back in late 2011 when I wrote a story for a friend. And that was all I’d ever been paid for. Anything beyond that – if it’s not Markus, if it’s not indie, if it’s not for PC and Mac – we would have to talk again.”
There were further angry email exchanges. After “it became absolutely clear that I wouldn’t sign that contract for Microsoft”, Gough was told that the company “no longer needed the signed, legal contract that would have actually given them ownership of the ending. The contract that had been vitally important ... until I said no ... and the deal went through for $2.5 billion.”
He says that at “any point, then, over the past eight years, I could have got the lawyers involved, promised them a percentage of whatever they could get me, and set them loose on Microsoft. But I didn’t, even at times when I was flat broke: and I couldn’t work out why.”
Ultimately, he says, he worked out that he did not chase the money because at the heart of this story is the essential fact that he “wrote a story for a friend, but in the end, he didn’t treat me like a friend, and I’m hurt ... I was caught in a kind of psychological, or maybe moral, trap: I couldn’t go after the money, because that would turn all this back into an argument about money, which wasn’t what this was ultimately about.”
He says now that he wants to “liberate” himself from the dispute and to “formally liberate the End Poem”.
In the post he writes that he wants to “hereby liberate it from the corporate economy”, where it has been since 2014, “and place it officially in the gift economy. From today on, you can play with it, whether privately or in public, and nobody can stop you. Well, technically and legally I could, because I hold the copyright, but I renounce my right to do so. The universe wrote that ending, and the universe owns it. Which is to say both that nobody owns it and we all own it. Which is to say it lives outside of that way of looking at art.
“And so: you are free to set it to music; dramatise it; animate it. Mash it up with whatever you think it would go well with. Whatever you’re inspired to do. (Ideally inspired by love, but that’s on you.) But with Minecraft, I signed no contract. Gave away no rights, no ownership. Signed no non-disclosure agreement. I’m free to give it away, and to tell you I’ve given it away.
“I think that’s what the universe wants.”
Microsoft has been asked to respond to Gough’s account of events and his decision to put the ending of the game in the public domain