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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

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What happens when a virtual streamer doesn’t own her body?

Projekt Melody briefly disappeared from Twitch due to a copyright dispute over her body

Projekt Melody swears her body belongs to her — the purple hair, the cat-eared bow, and all the barely there clothing that strategically covers her up. She commissioned it from an artist for $5,000 and even kept the receipts as proof. And for her thousands of fans on Twitch, this is what they see when she streams herself playing Minecraft, watching movies, or just sitting around chatting in her room.

It wasn’t until this month that she ran into a problem: the artist, alleging that Melody owed him money, filed a copyright complaint claiming that she didn’t actually own her body — he did. Melody was banned from Twitch.

It’s a strange situation, but one that could become more common. That’s because Melody is part of a growing wave of virtual streamers who broadcast using a 3D model in place of their body and face. The setup offers anonymity for the streamer and huge branding potential around the literal cartoon character they’re inhabiting. The model speaks and moves in accord with the person behind it, but viewers of the stream have no idea what that person actually looks like. They just hear her voice and see her reactions through the model that represents her. In the case of Melody, that’s a skinny anime woman with huge blue eyes, a croptop sweatshirt, and not much else. You can buy clothes, stickers, and pillows featuring her image, though the most popular form of merch seems to be posters of her in explicit poses.

Many virtual streamers appear under a pseudonym, but Melody performs as a full-on invented character. According to Melody’s story, she’s some sort of perverted AI who started life as an email scanning app before being “attacked by a sexy virus” that made her obsessed with hentai. “My story is a strange one,” Melody says in a video explaining her origin. She’s gained more than 300,000 followers since joining Twitch in March. Before that, she was on YouTube, posting videos with titles like “ARE MY DRAWINGS TOO LEWD??” and “Is Hentai Art?” She also streams explicit performances on Chaturbate.

Virtual creators like Melody — a group broadly known as Vtubers — have recently picked up in popularity on Twitch in the US, after first gaining attention on YouTube (thus Vtubers, or “virtual YouTubers”) in Japan a couple of years ago. In August, the top virtual streamers on Twitch, which included Melody, had more than 100,000 hours of viewership each, according to StreamElements and Arsenal.gg. The space got even more attention in September, when one of Twitch’s biggest streamers, Pokimane, debuted a virtual version of herself to her audience of, at the time, 5.5 million followers.

As their numbers grow, Vtubers may face copyright issues that traditional creators — who often just market themselves and their slogans — don’t have to worry about. If a Vtuber relies on an outside artist to create their character, the Vtuber will need to ensure they get all of the rights they need in order to continue streaming as that character, modify that character later, and market merchandise using that character’s image. That means Melody’s artist might have a case: though she can defend herself with receipts, intellectual property experts say there’s little substitute for a clear contract outlining exactly what she’s able to do with her body, even if she otherwise created the character and commissioned the art.

In order to own the character art outright, a streamer would need to have that explicitly written into a work for hire contract, said David P. Swenson, a partner at Patterson Thuente who specializes in IP law. “This is a trap that a lot of people fall into,” he told The Verge. Businesses that hire consultants or independent contractors often fail to write a sufficient contract and later realize, “‘Oh my gosh, the person who created the work actually has copyrights in it.’”

The artist who made Melody’s body, DigitrevX, said in his copyright complaint with Twitch that he owned the 3D model that currently represents her, according to a note Melody posted to Twitter. “A 3D modeler (DigitrevX) filed DMCA takedowns on all of my VODs, claiming he owns the copyright to my body,” Melody wrote. Because she received multiple copyright strikes, that made her a “repeat infringer,” Twitch wrote in an email posted by Melody, leading to a ban from the platform.

Melody doesn’t dispute that DigitrevX made her body or other assets that she’s used in the past. But she says that DigitrevX sold her complete ownership of her primary assets and design, so his copyright complaint isn’t valid. She posted images showing what appears to be a sales receipt for her character’s body, listing the design, model, and special features like blinking and “dynamic bone set up” as part of the package.

The page doesn’t state how Melody is allowed to use those assets, though. In another dump of images, which Melody says are Twitter DMs between herself and the artist, DigitrevX is shown saying he’d like to be listed on the copyright registration but that “you own the IP.” He goes on to say that it’ll be “nice to have something” to prove who owns what later on. “I helped but in the end this is yours,” DigitrevX wrote, according to Melody’s screenshot.

That alone may not be enough, though. “That in and of itself is a hollow statement,” Swenson said. “It’s a meaningless statement because the question is what IP rights do they have?”

Melody may not be entirely out of luck if there was nothing in writing. In cases where it’s understood how a buyer is going to use an artist’s work — like a photographer taking a headshot for an actor’s website — there may be an implied license, even if those terms aren’t spelled out. “That’s what the court would look to: what is the scope of the implied license?” Cheryl L. Burbach, a partner at Hovey Williams who specializes in IP law, told The Verge. “Clearly you’re not going to pay someone to buy artwork that you never intend to use.”

The process of getting a Vtube model created differs from streamer to streamer. Teru, an artist who has made 3D models for Vtubers (and is also a Vtuber herself), said that some people come to her with an existing design to turn into a model, but other people pay her to create the character from scratch. It can take a few weeks to make a 2D model, and potentially longer for a 3D model. Teru says she explicitly outlines what rights the buyer has to the work — usually, “they can pretty much do anything they want with it,” she told The Verge in a message on Discord. Her only requirement is getting credited as the designer.

The English-language Vtube scene is mostly filled with independent artists, though, Teru said, and knowing to outline specific rights to a purchase is something artists often learn as they gain experience. “Issues like what happened with Melody might actually raise awareness so both artists and commissioners learn that they have to settle and agree on their terms before they work together,” Teru said.

DigitrevX hasn’t disputed Melody’s account of why she was banned or what she owns the rights to, but he has aired grievances with her. The artist said on Twitter that he stopped working with Melody earlier this year, claiming that she failed to pay him for “months of support” that included “free assets, fixes, and project management.” He then asked her to sign a “service deal” for ongoing support, which she refused. “She didn’t pay for the service deal nor the work I did leading up to it. So I said bye,” DigitrevX wrote.

Melody claims she offered to pay for the “free” work, but DigitrevX refused. He continued to be “rude” and “insulting,” Melody wrote, so she eventually cut ties. “I finally blocked him after he kept saying shitty things about me, and now he has resorted to trying to de-platform me, starting with twitch,” Melody wrote.

Twitch and Melody did not respond to requests for comment. DigitrevX declined to comment, saying he was discussing with Melody’s team “how we can put this past us.”

Melody’s Twitch account was reinstated a day after being banned, but her account wasn’t entirely restored. She was previously a Twitch partner — a status that confers additional community perks and monetization options — but her partnership has been revoked since the ban.

Fortunately for Melody, she has other accounts across the web. She posts game videos and reactions to YouTube, sells merch in an online store, trolls her fans on Twitter, accepts donations on Patreon, and even has a following on Pornhub. If something goes wrong on Twitch, she’s readied plenty of other spaces to fall back on and a diversified revenue stream — like any good influencer, real or virtual.

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