The writer behind Minecraft’s beloved End Poem released his work to the public domain. What do we owe him in return?
In 1983, Lewis Hyde published The Gift, a book on the nature of art-making within a commercial world. His primary audience was “poets”—namely, non-rich poets, a descriptor that applies to essentially all of the members of that troubled field. Hyde dedicated a copy to Margaret Atwood, who was then in the midst of penning The Handmaid’s Tale. She was moved: “It is the one book I recommend without fail to aspiring writers and painters and musicians,” she wrote for the Paris Review in 2019. “It [helps] to keep you sane.”
As its title suggests, Hyde’s seminal text situates art as an offering to the public—but that doesn’t make art free. Gift-giving is an ever-changing facet of culture, complete with its own rules and obligations, which derive from communities’ unique social codes. It’s nuanced. Atwood puts it well: “If someone opens the door for you, do you owe that person a thank-you?… If your sibling asks you to donate your kidney to her, do you immediately say you’ll give it to her or do you charge her a couple thousand dollars? Why shouldn’t you accept a gift from the Mafia if you don’t want to find yourself on the receiving end of a request that you perform a criminal act?”
What do we owe our artists, who labor on our behalf? Hyde cycles through fables and folktales, tribal customs and etiquette tips, organ donation practices, economic theories, religious commandments. An infinite set of answers! But today, if you log on to Twitter, you’ll find quasi-consensus: We owe our artists money. This certainly is directly related to the evolution of copyright law, which directly correlates to the evolution of technology; once it became possible to store, duplicate, and distribute art on a monumental scale, interested parties created regulations to prevent theft—or, rather, the utilization of art outside the spirit of gift-giving. Profiting off pirating, for instance, or passing one’s work off as your own. The issue is, these laws have gradually become skewed to the massive benefit of corporations, truly harming artists—especially non-famous ones, who reap only fractions of the fruit of their labor.
Last week, Julian Gough posted an announcement to Substack. He’s the man behind the so-called End Poem, Minecraft’s narrative conclusion (and sole scripted element), which scrolls up the screen for nine minutes once you’ve killed the Ender Dragon—the video game’s final boss. Long story short, Gough was paid €20,000 for the commission and was handed a contract that he did not read or sign, on the basis that he considered the poem a gift to a friend: Minecraft’s creator, Markus Persson. Disillusioned by the payment negotiation process—which quickly revealed itself, unsurprisingly, to be about maximizing economic return—Gough took the money and spent it (he was a starving artist, after all), and made like he intended to accept Mojang’s very first offer.
“If we can’t get away from the black-and-white—from treating art strictly as commodity, as investment, as something to be bought and sold and owned—then there won’t be any reason (or any resources) left to make it.”
Gough moved on, though his feelings were hurt by Mojang’s hard-headed bargaining. The company didn’t notice he hadn’t signed the contract—until, of course, Persson moved to sell Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion, and realized he didn’t own the rights to its now-beloved End Poem. (The initially-proposed agreement was a comprehensive buyout, for that one-time fee.) Gough knew he could get more money—a lot more money—as Minecraft was already wildly popular; today, it’s the best-selling game of all time. But instead, he sat on the rights for years, making lawyers angrier and angrier until they eventually gave up. And last Wednesday, he gave those rights away to the gift economy.
“From today on, you can play with [the End Poem], whether privately or in public, and nobody can stop you,” writes Gough. “Which is to say both that nobody owns it, and we all own it. Which is to say, it lives outside of that way of looking at art… 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.”
Returning to The Gift: Atwood took care to note Hyde’s choice of cover art, a Shaker painting called Basket of Apples. She quotes his justification (“the Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world”), as well as its copyright attribution. (“Basket of Apples is reprinted through the courtesy of The Shaker Community Inc.”) “The word courtesy implies that no money changed hands,” writes Atwood. “But it could have, whereas under the Shaker rules such a thing would have been impossible. Hyde’s point is taken.”
Gough’s point is taken, too. It’s essentially the same point, four decades later, within a very different context characterized by late-stage capitalism and the reach of the internet. In the spirit of the Shakers, he’s giving his art away. You can put it on a t-shirt and sell it to a million people. But, in the writer’s words, you should “maybe think differently about that money, because it’s a gift from the universe. Give some of it away, to some person or cause you love. Keep the gift in motion.”
It’s like Reddit’s Shopping Cart Theory—a self-governance test. No consequences for not being courteous (leaving your trolley in the parking lot, while no one is looking on), and nothing more to gain if you are. (You’ve already enjoyed the convenience of effortless grocery transportation!) Nothing bad will happen if you disrespect an artist’s intentions or profit from their generosity. But maybe send them a few dollars.
This certainly isn’t to sanctify Gough, or to set him on a pedestal for other artists to emulate. I believe (as does he) that writers and painters and musicians should go after their money, however they have to. But if we can’t get away from the black-and-white—from treating art strictly as commodity, as investment, as something to be bought and sold and owned—then there won’t be any reason (or any resources) left to make it. Copyright law can’t protect artists from AI generations of their work. And friendship won’t stop Microsoft from exploiting writers, especially given its multi-billion dollar venture to monopolize the gaming industry. All we can do is act accordingly, in the Christmas spirit, if you will: It wasn’t a free download, it was a gifted download, and on and on and on, until culture follows suit.