How Minecraft’s “End Poem” ended up in the public domain

Minecraft is the best-selling video game of all time according to Wikipedia, with hundreds of millions of copies sold. The game concludes with the End Poem by the writer and musician Julian Gough, created in 2011. In December 2022, Gough wrote a post on his Substack site “The Egg and the Rock” in which he explains in detail how the poem came about. It’s a well-written, fascinating tale that touches on many aspects that are likely to be of interest to Walled Culture readers. It is, however, very long: some 10,000 words. Fortunately, Gough has also written a rather shorter Twitter thread that distils the main details. He has also thoughtfully provided a one-paragraph summary on his main post:

I wrote the End Poem for Minecraft, the most popular video game of all time. I never signed a contract giving Mojang [the Swedish company that created Minecraft] the rights to the End Poem, and so Microsoft (who bought Minecraft from Mojang) also don’t own it. I do. Rather than sue the company or fight with my old friend, who founded the company and has since gone off in the deep end, I am dedicating the poem to the public domain.

As that indicates, when he wrote the End Poem, Gough did something that this blog has recommended for all creators: to retain copyright in their work, rather than assigning it to a company, whatever the pressure to do so. Admittedly, he did this passively rather than actively, since he never got around to signing or even reading the contract that had been sent to him. When he did read it, he found it full of the usual – outrageous – demands to hand over just about every right that a creator typically has under copyright.

One amusing consequence of Gough’s oversight is that after Minecraft was sold in 2014 to Microsoft for $2.5 billion, the latter was almost certainly infringing on Gough’s copyright by selling the game without any licence from him. But rather than taking the obvious route of suing the company for a few million dollars or more, Gough did something remarkable. He dedicated it to the public domain, waiving all his rights under copyright:

you are free to set it to music; dramatise it; animate it. Mash it up with whatever you think it would go well with. Whatever you’re inspired to do. (Ideally inspired by love, but that’s on you.)

I can’t do this with my other published work, as in those cases I DID sign contracts, and that work IS enmeshed inside legal frameworks; the ghost world of law which haunts all of us.

But with Minecraft, I signed no contract. Gave away no rights, no ownership. Signed no non-disclosure agreement. I’m free to give it away, and to tell you I’ve given it away.

That’s clearly a wonderful, magnanimous gesture. But it does raise a perennial question: how does he, or any artist similarly sharing their work freely with the world, make a living? His solution is one that will be familiar to Walled Culture readers:

simply make direct connections with the artists you love. Cut the bad corporations out of the circuit, because they are blocking the flow of love; but use the good ones. You have no idea how powerful you are: how profound a difference you can make, just by doing that. Use the new online platforms, set up by people who love artists, where the artists actually receive most of your money.

Gough celebrates the other important benefit that flows from offering financial support to artists using crowdfunding platforms like Patreon or Kickstarter:

you will be in a relationship with that artist. So close the circuit. Let your affection for that artist flow directly to them. It sounds incredibly cheesy, but it is nonetheless true: together, we can change the world.

He rightly finishes his extremely interesting, if somewhat epic, post with a link to his own PayPal donation page. It would be nice if some of the hundreds of millions of people who have played and enjoyed Minecraft made that “direct connection” with him by sending money his way: to thank him for writing the End Poem, and for setting it free.

Featured image by Minecraft.