File Under: Multimedia, Other

Why We’re All Suckers For Buying Ringtones

ringtones.jpgApple’s announcement that it would begin selling ringtones through the iTunes Store has kicked off quite a debate over ringtones. New York Times columnist David Pogue recently asked his readers to explain to them why the heck anyone would want to pay for ringtones and got back some interesting answers — no one wants to.

So why are we paying for ringtones? Well, if you read the Wired How To Wiki on the subject, hopefully you’re not, but if you are, here’s a thought from copyright attorney Nilay Patel: You’re a sucker.

Well, actually Patel doesn’t say that, he merely points out that there’s no legal basis whatsoever for charging for ringtones.

In fact, the dreaded RIAA made sure that was the case by successfully arguing, as Patel says, “since making a ringtone doesn’t count as a derivative work, you’re not infringing any copyrights. Just don’t sell or distribute anything, and you should be fine.”

The reason the RIAA wanted that decision was because it wanted to collect royalties from those who sell ringtones, without giving any money back to the artists who created the songs. In order to set that up, the RIAA had to first prove ringtones were not derivative works, and a judge agreed with them.

The only thing I can conclude from this is that turning around and paying for ringtones makes us all suckers.

John Gruber has a great piece on Daring Fireball where he nicely sums up how we came to have a multi-billion dollar industry surrounding ringtones. In a word: marketing.

The whole ringtones racket is predicated on the notion that ringtones are something different than songs. This notion is bullshit. You don’t turn songs into ringtones; you treat them as ringtones. They’re not even a different file format. It’s just a different context for playing the same song on the same device.

This false notion that ringtones are something in and of themselves is an anachronism, an artifact dating back to the time when mobile phones existed in their own ecosystem, wholly separate from the PC or the Internet. There was no way to transfer songs from your computer to your phone, because phones didn’t support USB or Bluetooth. Back then, if you wanted new ringtones, the only way to get them onto your phone was through your mobile service provider. And because people did want them, and there was no other way to get them, the mobile providers were able to charge exorbitantly high prices for them.

The distinction between ringtones and songs is an artificial marketing construct. It is a misconception, albeit a widely held one, that there is any foundation in copyright law for this, i.e. that an honest consumer is obligated to pay for ringtones separately from “regular” songs for some legal reason. Not so.

So stop being a sucker. Head over to the Wired How To Wiki and get to it. One caveat: Apple’s Terms of Service for the iTunes store prevent you from re-using protected songs as ringtones, but so long as you only use songs you’ve ripped from a CD you’re probably fine.

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