Undertale Creator Settles Music CEO’s Bet Against Fans By Donating $20,000 To Charity
"We should be supporting the love and passion of our fans at every opportunity"
5:48 PM EST on January 8, 2024
In December, following a development cycle that began not long after the original Undertale came out, a full-length fan prequel called Undertale Yellow made its way into the world. It was met with celebration from diehard fans of the indie classic, but also dissent from a lone – but potentially very influential – voice: Sebastian Wolff, the CEO of Materia Music, which manages publishing of Undertale’s music (but does not own it). As part of a larger discussion around copyright and fan games, Wolff got into a verbal tussle with the creators of Undertale Yellow, eventually prompting Undertale creator Toby Fox to run interference to the tune of $20,000.
The saga is about as messy as it gets: Not long after Undertale Yellow’s release, a handful of creators on YouTube reported that their videos of the game had been copyright claimed by Materia for featuring songs from Undertale (Yellow uses both Undertale covers and reimaginings of Undertale music). The copyright claims seemingly flew in the face of Fox’s own public stance; in 2022, he stated that he’d prefer to have “NO copyright claims whatsoever," but that YouTube’s system basically didn’t allow that, so he and Materia had set copyright policy to trigger on as few videos as possible. In late December of this year, Materia CEO Wolff decided to use a tongue-in-cheek tweet from the Undertale Yellow account about the situation as a springboard to pontificate at length on what it would look like for a fan work to “properly” obtain licenses to Undertale’s music. After discussing the ins and outs of the process, he concluded by suggesting that fan teams do their best to reach out to original creators early and often.
"Rightsholders with good music administration teams are incentivized to offer licensing options, sync, placement, etc – retaining multi-decade traction, visibility, and some affect of commercial viability are all boons,” Wolff wrote. “Want to build a career on other people's rights? Ask."
A Twitter user replied that Fox had in the past effectively granted fans blanket permission to iterate on his music, leading Wolff to throw down a bet: "How about this," he wrote, "show me 'clearly defined permission' that Toby granted 7 years ago, which covers all of these uses, and I'll personally donate $10k to Undertale Yellow's dev team and retract this whole thread."
Not long after, Undertale Yellow’s director and composer, who goes by the handle MasterSwordRemix, replied to Wolff: "Hey man, I paid for licensing through Distrokid,” they wrote. “Really wish you would've emailed me your concerns instead of going on a public tirade. Please leave us be. This was highly unprofessional.”
Wolff deemed that insufficient for derivative works – as opposed to straight cover songs – and said Sword should email him. A couple weeks passed, with members of the Undertale community going back and forth with Wolff and citing Fox’s music guidelines on the Undertale Tumblr, which allow for the selling of covers, but only if you obtain a license, and forbid using the name Undertale or its logo.
“Oh hey, it's the policies I helped compile for Toby a few years ago – before YouTube Content ID became chaotic, before fan games became commercial ventures, before 20k Undertale covers existed,” wrote Wolff in response to one fan. “Sound-alikes, remixes, covers that aren't covers, etc. complicate things further.”
With tensions still simmering, the official Undertale Yellow Twitter account went on to publish a statement in early January: “As you may know, recently Undertale Yellow was at the forefront of a discussion around music copyright. This was an unexpected event, but we wanted to clear things up as soon as possible, do right by the rules, and put an end to copyright claims on UTY-related content. Since then, we have been in talks behind the scenes to resolve these issues. Thanks to the cooperation and hard work of Toby Fox and Materia Collective, any YouTube claim that occurs can now be disputed and released – much like how Undertale's music works."
(The Undertale Yellow team declined to reply to Aftermath’s questions, and Wolff did not reply as of this publishing.)
Under normal circumstances, this would be the end of it, but not online, where nothing can ever be normal. Hours after the Undertale Yellow team let everybody know that cooler heads had both met and prevailed, Wolff posted that he was receiving bomb threats. Meanwhile, fans tried to call him on his bet, to which he replied that this situation did not fit any of the criteria he set forth.
A couple days later, the Undertale Yellow team replied to Wolff with another statement – this one from Toby Fox himself.
"Sebastian is right," Fox wrote. “The Undertale Yellow team did not receive explicit permission from me to publish any music until recently. However, even if Sebastian is technically correct, the way that he handled this situation was wrong. Making a bet against a creator of a fanwork is extremely unprofessional in a way I shouldn't even have to explain. As I have explained to Sebastian in private, if well-meaning fans have made a mistake, it should be our job to figure out how to help them make it right. More than anything, we should be supporting the love and passion of our fans at every opportunity."
Fox went on to say that he donated $20,000 to a charity of the Undertale Yellow team’s choosing, Able Gamers, as an apology. "You can consider it as $10k for Sebastian and $10k from myself," wrote Fox, who added that he plans to clarify rules around Undertale music licensing in the future.
Fox, who cut his teeth as a game developer by making Earthbound fan games, stands in stark contrast to companies like Nintendo, which mercilessly shuts down fan works, or Square Enix and Konami, who’ve swatted down their fair share of fan games over the years even while (sort of) embracing some. Companies like Valve, Blizzard, Riot, and Bethesda have facilitated fan works to varying degrees, but the industry as a whole remains a lake of thin ice for teams behind ambitious fan games to cross. Fox obviously operates at a smaller scale than many of those big companies, but there’s no denying that fans have been instrumental in keeping Undertale fresh and relevant in the years since its release, even as development on its successor, Deltarune, chugs along in the back- (and occasionally fore-) ground.
"I'm happy that such a good thing could come from an ugly situation," wrote Sword, Undertale Yellow's director. "Thank you, Toby."
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