Games platform Roblox has enjoyed plenty of positive headlines for its push into music in partnership with labels and artists, but now the company is facing a battle with music publishers over licensing.
Yesterday, the US National Music Publishers Association sued Roblox on behalf of a group of publishers, seeking at least $200m in damages for “Roblox’s unabashed exploitation of music without proper licences”.
NMPA boss David Israelite claimed that “they’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars by requiring users to pay every time they upload music onto the platform – taking advantage of young people’s lack of understanding about copyright – and then they take virtually no action to prevent repeat infringement or alert users to the risks they are taking”.
What’s going on here then? The key thing to understand is that it’s not really about Roblox’s artist partnerships. When we interviewed Roblox’s new head of music Jon Vlassopulos last July, we asked him about licensing, and he explained that the strategy was based on “if an artist is going to come to the platform, they would bring the rights and everything associated with it”.
This is about user-generated content (UGC) – not artist performances or album launch parties on Roblox (unless they perform / cover songs they haven’t cleared of course) but rather the games being created by the Roblox community.
Israelite’s comments about ‘requiring users to pay’ relate to the way the Roblox Studio software used to make games for the platform handles music and audio. You can read up on that here: users uploading ‘custom audio’ for their games pay a fee (in Robux, the platform’s currency) that varies according to the length of the clip.
“This accounts for the time it takes moderators to review every sound file that users upload,” explains Roblox on its website. That claim that mods are reviewing every sound file uploaded by users will be key if the lawsuit makes it to court, given the NMPA’s assertion that songs recorded by the likes of Ariana Grande, Imagine Dragons, deadmau5, Ed Sheeran and the Rolling Stones have been found on Roblox.
As a UGC platform, Roblox has a DMCA takedown policy (you can read about that here) and a section in its terms of service (they’re here) spelling out that by uploading music developers are granting the company rights to use it “without the obligation to pay royalties to any third party” including labels, publishers or collecting societies.
Is this lawsuit a shock for Roblox? It shouldn’t be. In its filing to go public in November 2020, we spotted a line about Roblox already using “the services of a third-party audio monitoring service” to monitor any uploads of copyrighted recordings from major labels, although note that’s not for songs owned by publishers. The filing also explained that “certain record companies and music publishers also maintain that we are subject to liability for infringing content that was previously uploaded to our platform and have stated that they may seek damages for such infringement”.
Meanwhile, under Vlassopulos Roblox has explored a Twitch-style model of a library of cleared music from partner rightsholders, starting off with Monstercat. “We’re going to open up that program to more independent musicians and labels who want to have their music available to 120 million-plus kids. Hopefully it can help as a promotional outlet for the artists,” he told us.
That strategy hasn’t protected Twitch from the wrath of the NMPA: indeed, yesterday Israelite also announced “a major ramp-up” of its takedown notices campaign targeting that service.
Roblox appears to have two options now. Step up its copyrighted music monitoring efforts and fight the lawsuit, or agree a deal with the NMPA. The history of such disputes suggests a deal is the likeliest outcome, but Roblox has yet to comment – we have contacted the company this morning, and we’ll update our story when it does.
Update: Roblox has now issued a statement promising to defend itself “vigorously” against the lawsuit, and setting out its policies on copyright infringement. You can read that statement in full here. Meanwhile, Music Ally journalists Joe Sparrow and Stuart Dredge have been talking about the lawsuit in our latest Music Ally Focus podcast, which you can find here. Or, if it works in your browser, embedded below!