The Truth About Game Audio Contracts
Nooooooo! What a headache!
Getting started as a game audio freelancer involves trying to wrap your head around the complexity of the legal system and your rights as a creator.
Well... it kind of sucks.
Where do you start and what do you need to know for your first few paid jobs?
Let's break down the basics in a way that everyone can understand.
Disclaimer: the following information is not official legal advice. Duh...
You might be surprised but...
This is not official legal advice.
Nor is it an example of how to write an airtight contract that will hold up in a court of law.
Because the thing is this:
Most of us don't need legally binding, lawyer-approved contracts for our first paid projects!
But Ben... if that's the case, how do you protect yourself and your work?
I'm glad you asked...
When facing things that are difficult to comprehend, I like to use the K.I.S.S. concept.
K.I.S.S. stands for: Keep - It - Simple - Stupid!
I'm so happy I found a gif for this.
Let's apply this concept to your first game audio projects.
These jobs will likely be very small indie games or prototypes where you won't be earning more than a couple hundred to one or two thousand dollars.
In that situation, there is simply no reason that lawyers are going to get involved, no matter how bad it gets.
Instead of finding some 20-page contract template you don't understand online and thrusting it into the hands of an equally confused hobby or part-time game developer, save yourself the hassle and discuss the project with them in plain English.
Am I saying that contracts are useless and you should never get around to informing yourself on the matter or having one?
What I'm saying is that for beginners, there is no reason to let the lack of 100% legal security get in the way of doing work and getting paid.
As long as there is an email or text exchange in which you agree to the scope of work (what you're delivering and when) and who owns the rights to the sound, the likelihood of complete catastrophe is very small.
Yea... this isn't going to happen.
Of course, if you don't understand the fundamentals of selling your video game music or sound design, you can't have a contract, plain English or otherwise.
So let's discuss:
Selling Your Sound Effects
When selling sound effects for a game, 99% of the time you are selling a license to use the sound, not ownership of the sound outright.
This is partly because most sound designers work with sound libraries and even if they use those library sounds in new and interesting ways, they can't legally sell ownership of assets they created with library content.
What they can sell is a sync license* so their clients can use the sound they created in their project.
A sync license is an agreement between the license/copyright holder (you) and a licensee (your client) to use your sound effects or music in their visual work; in this case, a video game.
To keep things simple (back to K.I.S.S.) and avoid legal headaches, I generally recommend selling your game dev clients what is known as an exclusive sync license.
Exclusive Sync Licenses
An exclusive license means the sound effects created will belong to your client and only your client in terms of usage rights for the current project and any supporting media*.
Supporting media is any video or audio content associated with the marketing and distribution of the game. Think trailers and stuff.
In this scenario, the audio assets belong uniquely to the client and their project in almost every sense of the word.
The only exceptions are resale and reuse.
As mentioned above, the client will have the license to use the sound or music in their game but it is restricted to the current project only and they can not resell them or reuse them in other projects.
Although it can become considerably more complex, this is the most fundamental way audio assets are sold for many types of media.
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Selling Your Music
Game music is dealt with differently because, in the eyes of the law, composers own the rights to the music they created outright, no matter which tools they used, unlike sound effects, where the use of any library content prohibits ownership.
Nonetheless, it is common and recommended to work with sync licenses for your compositions.
Same Same but Different
All parameters of the licensing are the same as sound effects except for one thing.
A game's soundtrack can be (and in common practice is) actively sold and placed on streaming platforms where it has the potential to generate future income.
Sweet, sweet OST sales
Since the soundtrack would not exist without the game and both profit from the other's success, the fairest thing to do is to split the revenue.
The specifics of the revenue split and which parties will be allowed to post the music on what platforms is something that needs to be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
Generally, if indie game composers aren't getting a great up-front rate, they have a good argument to keep 100% of the soundtrack revenue. However, there are no standards here so feel free to do whatever seems fairest for the project and for you.
And one last thing:
Just because you can legally sell ownership of your music, doesn't mean you should!
If your client ends up owning your work, they can potentially turn around and use it elsewhere to make more money for themselves without you ever seeing another dime.
NEVER sell ownership of the work you create unless you are getting a price you are very, very happy with!
I hope this short overview has helped you understand the basics of selling sound and music for games.
Because if you don't understand the options, how can you help your client understand them?
Remember: don't let legal confusion get in the way of your first paid gigs!
If you start to acquire more jobs with better budgets, you can always take care of heady legal stuff like signing up at a PRO (performance rights organization) and writing a proper contract later.
Until that point, a plain-English email or text exchange (don't lose or delete!) summarizing the scope of your work and the rights your client has to your sounds is more than enough to get started.
“Keep everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Still have questions?
Drop them in the comments below!
I created The Game Audio Pro with the goal of helping others understand the fundamental business skills that are often the difference between success and failure for freelancers.
If you're ready to take your game audio career to the next level, download my guide to The Most Important Mindset for Game Audio Success.