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20 years later, the Halo composers are suing Microsoft

Marty O’Donnell and Mike Salvatori believe Microsoft owes unpaid royalties

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary - Warthog firing at an air vehicle Image: 343 Industries/Microsoft Studios
Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Marty O’Donnell and Mike Salvatori, the composers for the original Halo trilogy, say Microsoft owes them unpaid royalties for the use of their music, and they’re suing to get them. Their joint studio, O’Donnell Salvatori Inc., will go to mediation with the Halo publisher later this month, and if they can’t reach an agreement, the composers may demand an injunction against the Halo TV series set to launch March 24 on Paramount Plus, O’Donnell said in a lengthy interview with Eurogamer.

The dispute goes back more than 20 years, before Microsoft even purchased Bungie and Halo. O’Donnell and Salvatori claim they wrote and recorded the Halo outside of Bungie in the late 1990s, and then licensed the work to the studio. Microsoft believes the work classifies as “work-for-hire,” making the company the “author” of the work.

Bungie did hire O’Donnell as its in-house composer in 2000, a year before Halo: Combat Evolved’s release. But Salvatori remained independent. Ten days after O’Donnell joined Bungie as a full-time employee, Microsoft bought the studio. O’Donnell says he tried to clarify the licensing arrangement to O’Donnell Salvatori Inc.’s music in his new contract.

O’Donnell said he offered to leave Bungie and continue working as a contractor, licensing his work to Microsoft and Bungie. But Microsoft, uncertain of how much of the soundtrack O’Donnell Salvatori had recorded would be used in the game, told him “we’ll deal with the license later on this music,” O’Donnell told Eurogamer.

“If they made a mistake on that first initial conversation with me, it was that somebody should have said, ‘Well, who’s going to make the decision on how music is written and used in this game?’” O’Donnell said. “Because then I would have said, ‘Well, that’ll be my decision. I have a vested interest at this point to use this music for the game.’”

But O’Donnell remained as a full-time Bungie employee, with the original licensing agreement apparently in place, and the larger issue never resolved. O’Donnell said he didn’t push the issue of royalties further because he wanted to keep working for Microsoft and Bungie.

Bungie fired O’Donnell in 2014 following an internal disagreement over how the studio and Activision, Destiny’s original publisher, used or didn’t use music he had composed for that game. Although he later prevailed in a suit over unpaid wages and a revoked stock grant, he was found in contempt of court for violating a 2015 order against sharing or performing any of his music for Destiny.

The judge, ruling for Bungie after the studio brought a challenge, levied a $100,000 penalty against O’Donnell, who also issued a court-approved statement telling anyone in possession of that music to destroy their copies and not distribute them further.

To Eurogamer, O’Donnell went into much greater detail about his legal messes, and his frustrations with Microsoft; Salvatori’s only comment is, “I feel disrespected.”

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