Polyphonic Ringtones: Calls, Court Cases, and Copyrights
By Philip Nicosia
Ringtones are big business. The
Yankee Group announced that over the last five years, these musical tones have
sent people literally singing to the bank, with a total revenue of $2 billion
since 2001, and $50 million in one year alone.
The figures show how popular ringtones have become among cell phone users, who
download the files to personalize their caller functions. They can pick from
millions of songs, from the latest hit R&B single, to quirky sounds like cows
mooing, to the classical pieces of Ludwig van Beethoven. Technological
development has also made the audio quality of the ringtones much more
realistic. From the ear-piercing, tin-like sounds of the first downloadable
tunes, today’s music pieces have a near-radio quality. You could dance to it,
except you’d look pretty silly shaking your booty while taking a call.
Unfortunately, the realistic quality of the musical pieces have raised a few
ethical issues, namely violation of copyright. Since the sound of the ringtones
and the sound of the actual songs are so close, record companies are saying that
they count as reproductions—and because of that, they should pay some kind of
royalty to the labels and the singers.
In a celebrated case, rap artist Eminem filed injunctions against five ringtone
companies, supposedly because they had used his songs without his prior consent.
Some would argue that the ringtones only use ten seconds, maximum, of the actual
song. How long should a snippet be before it becomes copyright infringement?
Nokia representative Matthew Courtney believes that it has nothing to do with
length. "Every reproduction of a musical excerpt involves payment of copyright
fees to the copyright owner," he says.
There are some songs that fall beyond this rule, such as those that fall into
public domain: classical pieces, national anthems, and yes, a cow mooing. (To
date, there are no records of cows suing any major ringtone company.) Others
still require the permission of the artists, and may even be subject to royalty
Luckily most artists are not that inclined to sue, seeing the ringtones as a way
of promoting their music, and perhaps a compliment to their own popularity. In a
way, being immortalized in a ringtone has become a gauge of how one’s music has
infiltrated public consciousness. Besides, nobody actually downloads a ringtone
as a replacement for an actual record. A real fan would want more than a ten
second recording out of a three minute song, although would probably use that
snippet to announce to the world, “Hey, this tune rocks.”
However, trends do indicate that fans may actually be willing to pay for their
polyphonic ringtones. Music label EMI representative Jay Samit estimates that
the earnings form ringtones could contribute as much as 10% of the record
industry’s total revenues. Apparently, the appeal of ringtones is that strong—
people aren’t just downloading it because it’s free, but because it’s a valued
Of course, many polyphonic ringtones still allow people to download the tunes
for free, generating their revenue from ads instead. Others use a mixture of the
two business models, offering some for free (or a weekly rotating list) while
requiring a small download fee for “premium ringtones”.
Either way, lawsuits notwithstanding, the fact is that ringtones are here to