‘Music in games is the new rock and roll’

Music may be an increasingly difficult business for the record industry, but in games it’s never been better.

Publisher Activision says it has sold over six million units of Guitar Hero worldwide, generating a sales income of US $238 million.

Guitar Hero is expected – within only two years from its initial release – to be the first franchise to break through the US $1 billion barrier, ahead of FIFA, Madden, Grand Theft Auto and The Sims. It has generated over two million song downloads in the last seven months. In a world of dwindling CD sales, that is a statistic artists are unlikely to ignore.

Even with more conventional games, developers now invariably either look to commercially available recordings to add atmosphere, kudos and value to their productions, or else commission cinematic-style soundtracks from well-known composers, such as in Electronic Arts’ Medal Of Honor series.

Such music rarely comes cheap, but it can itself bring game publishers and developers extra revenues, with record labels now releasing spin-off soundtracks of music featured in computer games. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, for example, has given rise to seven albums from Epic/Sony Music Entertainment.

Copyrights and wrongs

Publishers and developers who want to capitalise on the trend need to devote time and resources to understanding the non-creative ramifications, too.

In particular, you must fully grasp the legal issues of sourcing and acquiring music rights – of knowing what rights arise in commissioned or recorded music, who owns them, and how to clear them to enable you to exploit it in all forms, platforms and variations.The consequences of not doing so can be disastrous.

Unauthorised use of a composition or a recording in a game infringes copyright law and may give rise to an action by an aggrieved copyright owner against you, which can lead to a claim for substantial damages or a share of the game’s profits.

Worse, the rights’ holder may be able to prevent your game getting to market by way of an injunction, or require the destruction or delivery of all copies of the game if it’s already released. Unauthorised use may even give rise to criminal proceedings, possibly resulting in a heavy fine or a custodial sentence.

Know what you really, really want

Publishers and developers must ensure they obtain rights

before substantial work is done on the game, and before any piece of music becomes essential:

* Be clear on what rights you need: Is it simply the right to use the music as a whole, or does the game require other uses? Will the music need to be edited or even re-mixed? Game promotion must also be considered.

* Future proof the rights you obtain. Don’t limit them to the game configuration or platform currently envisaged, but all media, configurations, formats and platforms, whether known now or developed in the future.

* Think about ancillary rights which can prove lucrative – in particular, the soundtrack albums, sequels, spin-offs, film versions, and even stage show versions of the game (‘Grand Rights’).

The wider the scope of rights required, the more expensive they’ll be, so a balance must be struck.

Rights acquisition can become a valuable asset in itself and you may find it more cost effective to secure broad, future rights now, than to obtain them later – especially if you have the next Guitar Hero on your hands…

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