Halo composers suing Microsoft for two decades of royalty payments

Halo 5 Master Chief
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Eurogamer has the scoop on a lawsuit originally filed in June 2020 that is only now coming to light: A case where two composers of the original Halo music and the series' iconic theme are taking Microsoft to court for what they say is two decades of unpaid royalties. Marty O'Donnell and Mike Salvatori are the plaintiffs and behind countless pieces of Halo music that have not just been used in games, but sold as soundtracks, re-recorded for other games including Halo Infinite (without being credited as the composers), and now feature in the upcoming Halo TV series.

The article contains a full interview with O'Donnell where he goes into the nuts and bolts, but the basic claim is that he and Salvatori, as the company O'Donnell Salvatori Inc., licensed the Halo music to Bungie—even before the company was bought by Microsoft—and subsequently struggled to get Microsoft to recognise the nature of this deal. Things only changed when it was decided there would be a separate release of the soundtrack.

"That's when that first new contract came in, where we were like, 'Yes, we will sign over the publishing rights and the copyright on this music for Halo to Microsoft.'," O'Donnell told Eurogamer. "However, I wanted to do it the way it's done in movies and television, where the composers are still ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] composers, and it's not a pure work-for-hire. There is a contract for any ancillary royalties—so use in commercials, use in anything outside the game, specifically, or sales of soundtracks."

O'Donnell Salvatori Inc. under this contract should get 20% of the profits on anything outside the game that uses the music (which O'Donnell points out is not an especially high royalty rate for composers either). The composers say that, while Microsoft has been sending a "little cheque" quarterly, they don't believe it reflects anywhere near what they should be getting: "okay, if this is 20 percent, then it doesn't seem like Microsoft is really making much money."

For its part Microsoft's counterclaim says the Halo music is work-for-hire and, rather brazenly, Microsoft qualifies as the author of that work. The problem for Microsoft, however, is that it could potentially be on the hook for an eye-watering amount of money here. The work of these composers is inseparable from Halo—the themes everyone gets misty eyed about—and as such features prominently in pretty much every Halo thing.

And for one Halo project in particular, this may have come at the worst possible time. "This Paramount thing just showed up on TV and Mike and I felt pretty disrespected," O'Donnell told Eurogamer. "Having a connection to ancillary revenue from exploiting the original Halo music is exactly what this contract is all about. Since we filed two years ago they've continued to ignore the terms. Now, they're about to broadcast the Halo TV show and are using our monk chant (calling it the theme to Halo) to also advertise and solicit subscriptions for Paramount+."

That advert's below. The composers have instructed their lawyers to look into whether they can seek an injunction to block the show's release. That may be an outside possibility, it may not get anywhere, but even the slimmest chance of it is the kind of headache Microsoft and Paramount do not want in the run-up to the show's release.

O'Donnell also recently had legal troubles with Bungie over Destiny music. He was fired by Bungie in 2014 and ordered to return assets relating to his work on Destiny, including Music of the Spheres, the "musical prequel" he created with Paul McCartney. (O'Donnell was also told to give up his shares in Bungie, which he won back in a court case in 2015.)

Though legally prohibited from sharing or even performing music from Destiny and Music of the Spheres, O'Donnell uploaded musical sketches and variations to YouTube and BandCamp, including an album called Sketches for MotS. This resulted in him being found in contempt of court earlier this year and ordered to pay Bungie nearly $100,000 in legal fees, after which he had to post a video telling people to destroy any copies.

O'Donnell blamed his firing on meddling from Destiny's initial publisher Activision, saying that Bungie's deal with Activision was "bad from the start". He goes into much more detail on this current saga over in Eurogamer's full report.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."