The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) recently made the ridiculous assertion that cellphone ringtones are to be considered “public performances” of music under the Copyright Act and thus require a license. As Ars Technica eloquently pointed out, the claim is ridiculous because after all one doesn’t need a public performance license to drive around town in a convertible with the radio on.
Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sided with the defendants in the case (AT&T and Verizon Wireless), called the organization’s claims downright ‘outlandish’ and urged a federal court to reject the “bogus” copyright claims.
Imagine my surprise to find out that Verizon has now agreed to pay the ASCAP an interim license fee of more than $4.99 million for songs the phone service provider uses in ringtones for its customers. Meanwhile, the two sides will continue to debate how much the group should receive for the tunes.
For the record: carriers already pay royalties to song owners for the right to sell snippets to their customers in the form of ringtones. The ASCAP, however, told a federal court that each time a phone rings in public, the phone user is violating copyright law and thus carriers must pay additional royalties or face legal liability for contributing to what the group claims is cell phone users’ copyright infringement.
ASCAP has made it clear that it has no intentions to effectively start charging mobile phone users for playing ringtones, just mobile phone service providers for making it possible for them to do so. But as the EFF says in its rebuttal, consumers could find themselves targeted by other copyright owners for “public performances” if the ASCAP should prevail, not to mention the stifling of innovation in the field and the fact that it could ultimately increase the cost for the average mobile consumer.
All this brouhaha brings back fond memories of the time the ASCAP went after Girl Scouts for singing around a campfire. I wonder if they ultimately complied to the copyright claims and coughed up a couple of millions for the right to sing “Row, Row, Row” at summer camp nights, too.