Ringtones and ASCAP

Browsing through Yahoo! News this morning, a PC World story about ringtones caught my eye.  I’ve always thought that ringtones occupy an interesting place in our culture.  Remember when Apple raised its prices from $.99 to $1.29 and there was a fair bit of howling?  I always thought it was a bit odd that people would moan about paying $1.29 for a full song that they can play over and over again, when there are scads and scads of people willing to fork over at least twice that much to hear the song in terrible quality for only about 30 seconds or so.  (AT & T’s Media Mall; Verizon’s Media Store; Sprint’s Digital Lounge)

One would think, given that people who buy ringtones are paying a premium for the license (and yes, it’s a license) to have their phones pump out music, that would satisfy ASCAP.


ASCAP is suing AT&T over ringtones, saying that a royalty is owed every time the phone rings, because, in ASCAP’s mind, such ringing is tantamount to a public performance.  Bollocks, says the EFF.  Copyright law, it argues in an amicus brief, does not reach “public performances ‘without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage’,” sort of like driving with your windows down.

Now, getting at what sort of license you actually have when you get a ringtone from AT&T is pretty difficult.  Sprint, for its part, clearly states what you are able to do with your ringtone:

Product License

This is a limited, nonexclusive, nontransferable license to use this content for personal use until it expires, subject to any restrictions provided with the product purchased and in the Premium Services Terms of Use.  You agree not to sell, transfer, copy, publicly perform, create derivative works from or otherwise reproduce, modify or revise the content.  The content provided is protected under applicable laws, including copyright laws.


Verizon has a limited amount of information about its ringtones, and it’s a bit harder to find than Sprint’s; I ended up just using Bing to search for the license:

Ringtones Terms and Conditions

Subject to Customer Agreement.  Each ringtone purchased is only valid for use on the handset to which it is delivered.  The ringtone will be delivered to your handset via a MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) message.  If your account has SMS or MMS block enabled at the time you confirm this purchase you will not be able to receive the MMS message containing the ringtone.  However, your account will still be billed.  You must save the ringtone to your handset, otherwise when you delete the MMS message containing the ringtone, you will no longer have access to the ringtone and will need to purchase it again if you want to use the ringtone.  Please note, based on the type of handset you are using the sound quality of the ringtone you are purchasing may differ from the sound quality available through the Preview on the Verizon Wireless website.


AT&T’s license, also is difficult to find.  In fact, I’m just going to give up on finding it.

The main point is, whether ASCAP is actually sincere about their concerns that ringtones might comprise a public performance, it seems like all they want to do is gouge money out of cell providers, especially since they don’t appear to have any notion of actually going after consumers for the public performance.

On a related note, I wondered if “ringtone” is a registered trademark of anyone, given the kerfluffle over Intel’s use of the term “netbook” I mentioned a while back.  Surprisingly, there appears not to be a registration on “ringtone” in and of itself.  There is an application for one, but it doesn’t appear to be registered yet, taken out by Young Executives, Inc.  (Serial No. 77589426).  Interesting.