Over the past few days, what should have been a positive PR stunt for Watch Dogs: Legion has evolved into a rather messy debate surrounding the exploitation of artists. The controversy began when Joseph Gordon-Levitt announced his company HitRecord would once again partner with Ubisoft on a community collaboration project allowing fans to submit music contributions to Watch Dogs: Legion, with winning compositions being awarded $2000 (£1600) for each song selected for inclusion.
Since then, however, the initiative has received a significant amount of backlash on social media, with the main concern being artists are essentially being asked to contribute "spec" work (submitting examples or complete work without an agreed-upon fee). This means artists run the risk of composing work for the game and receiving no payment for their efforts should their song not be chosen. Ubisoft's previous collaboration with HitRecord for Beyond Good and Evil 2, for instance, had drawn over 11,000 contributions as of November 2018 - but it's unclear exactly how many of these submissions will be used, and whether their artists have yet received any money for their work (via Variety).
Concerns have also been raised about the amount of money awarded to each artist, as the $2000 is split between all contributors for that particular song - meaning individual composers could end up with significantly less than that total figure. It also creates a messy situation regarding rights to the work: as noted by Jeff Ramos for Polygon last year, while artists retain the rights to their own contribution, the collaborative nature of HitRecord means individual composers do not own the rights to the entire piece - and the finished song becomes a unique product HitRecord owns the rights to sell.
In response to the criticism, Ubisoft has now issued an official statement via its Watch Dogs: Legion Twitter account. In the post, Ubisoft highlighted that the game will feature "140 licensed songs and an original score", created by a team of professional artists and composers.
"The additional contributions - no matter how large or small - from anyone within the HitRecord community are completely voluntary, and are meant to give them a chance to have their own creative expressions included in the game," the post concludes.
Of course, this hasn't gone down entirely well on social media, with some users arguing that while nobody is forcing artists to contribute, the project is encouraging a "race to the bottom" and preying on more desperate artists. Some, however, agree with Ubisoft's statement, arguing the initiative provides a good introduction to the games industry for newcomers and hobbyists who just want to try their hand.
From the wording of the post, it's clear Ubisoft views the initiative as a fun way for fans and non-professional musicians to interact with the game, and the game's creative director Clint Hocking also said in a video that he considers the project to be in the spirit of Watch Dogs: Legion and the focus on community. But while the intentions may have been good, it still raises questions in the wider context of artists struggling to be paid fairly for their work and instead being promised "exposure". Further, the decision to repeat the collaboration - particularly given the level of controversy it generated last year - is somewhat odd. Maybe this is a PR stunt that would have been best avoided entirely.