Ringtones and Copyright - What is the Status?

By: Christine Anderssen

Right from the start ring tones were distinctive, melodious sounds that were played by a mobile phone when it rang to distinguish it from other cell phones ringing in the same environment. Little did cellular phone manufacturers realize what an impact these ring tones would make on the cell phone market.

From a humble beginning of about 10 different tinny tunes, today the ringtone market is exploding with customization. Ring tones can now be personalized, customized, mixed and matched to create a completely distinctive sound. Love them or hate them, in today's mass market, uniqueness is starting to become a very important asset. Cool kids want to stand out with cool ring tones. Cellular phone manufacturers were quick to cotton on and the capabilities to individualize ring tones is becoming an important differentiator in the cell phone market.

The rise of customizable ring tones obviously was facilitated by the technology that can be provided through the Internet. Websites that allow people to download ring tones are common. Going hand in hand with this is the fact that lots of recording companies also got in on the deal by making some of their music available to be used for ring tones and therefore boosting the bottom line of their royalty earnings. The fact is though that piracy does abound and with the use of torrent sites or pirate MP3 download sites it has actually become possible for many people to download practically any type of song and use it as a ring tone.

There are also plenty of tools available on the Internet to allow cell phone owners to do exactly this. Examples of this are so called 'MP3 to Ring tone converters' that can be downloaded from many popular download sites. There are normally disclaimers attached to these utilities ('we do not condone piracy or copyright violations') although whether this will be something that the users of the product will take note of is a different story. Theoretically if you already own the music on CD and just take a snippet of 30 seconds and make your own ring tone, it is not illegal - according to an article written by Engadget.com written in September 2007 (/know-your-rights-is-it-illegal-to-make-my-own-ringtones/). This is due to the latest copyright ruling in Dec 2006 which rules that a mastertone ringtone of less than 30 seconds is not a derivative work and therefore not infringing on the copyright of the original artist. Also, few people (theoretically) have ring tones that are longer than 30 seconds - and frankly, if they have, they should be taken out and shot, or hit over the head by their own cell phone in a sock..

If you want to make a ringtone for your Iphone, you have to pay twice for the song - once to download, and once to use as a ring tone. This has probably more to do with Apple's contract with the music label owners than the actual copyright infringement laws. You can bet your bottom dollar that the music label owners would do anything to wring the last cent out of a company like Apple and there are probably huge swaths of forests sacrificed to the fine print in the Apple Itunes contract with regards to ring tones.

But one could also argue that music label owners are shortsighted in not allowing their music to be used freely as ring tones. There is an argument that allowing the music to be freely used in a 10 second or even 30 second clip allows for greater distribution and awareness of the music itself and could actually be viewed as a free marketing tool. If one looks at the explosion of certain sections of the music industry just because more people got to listen to music that they would otherwise not have been exposed to, once cannot help but think that there is some truth in this statement. .

Be that as it may, if you really are keen to have your own ring tone for your phone, the options today are either to download music and make your own ring tone, which could potentially be illegal if you do not own the music in the first place, or use Apple to make ringtones for your iPhone from the limited database of tunes that are available as ring tones, or if you still have a normal cell phone, to go directly to a ring tone site and just download the latest hits already set up as ring tones directly to your phone, without the hassle.

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