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ASCAP — Ringtones Infringe Copyrights

July 4, 2009 by
Filed under: Copyright Articles 

Millions of Americans have bought musical ringtones, often clips from favorite popular songs, for their cellular phones.  Cell phone carriers (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, etc.) pay royalties to song owners for the right to sell these snippets to their customers.  However, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) alleges that each time a phone rings in a public place, the playing of that ringtone violates copyright law.   Accordingly, ASCAP asserts, communications carriers must pay additional royalties or face legal liability for contributing to what they claim is cell phone users’ copyright infringement.  In an amicus brief filed July 1, 2009, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urges the Court to consider that copyright law does not reach public performances “without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage”.  That is, a cell phone user does not intend for the distinctive ringtone to serve as a commercial advantage.  Accordingly, if individual phone users are not infringing copyright law, then communications service providers are not contributing to any infringement.

ASCAP’s position is that it does not plan to charge cell phone users, rather ASCAP seeks payments from communications providers who sell or otherwise provide access to use of the distinctive ringtones.

EFF asserts that such a finding might have a chilling effect, and if ASCAP prevails, then consumers could find themselves targeted by other copyright owners for “public performances.”

For more information, see EFF’s brief or go to the PACER, the on-line access to U.S. Appellate, District, and Bankruptcy court records and documents nationwide and find all pleadings under the Southern District of New York, Civil Action No. 41-1395.

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