Verizon to pay ASCAP $5 million interim fee for ringtone use

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Three months after performance rights organization the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers filed suit against AT&T, alleging that each time a musical ringtone goes off in public the mobile phone melody constitutes a performance and violates copyright law, rival operator Verizon Wireless has agreed to pay ASCAP an interim licensing fee of close to $5 million for continued ringtone use. Law360.com reports that Cellco Partnership, doing business as Verizon Wireless, will pay ASCAP $4.99 million for songs used in its ringback and various V Cast services dating back to Nov. 11, 2004. The report adds that ASCAP continues to negotiate with operators to determine how much it should receive for rights to its catalog.

While operators and mobile content providers already pay songwriters and publishers a licensing fee for each ringtone download, ASCAP contends it is owed additional royalties for "public performances" (e.g., handsets ringing in a restaurant) of those same ringtones--according to ASCAP, which filed the civil action suit against AT&T in the U.S. District Court of the southern district of New York, it has been licensing content to wireless carriers and ringtone content providers since 2001, but now, certain carriers want to avoid that payment altogether.

"Fortunately, ASCAP is wrong," writes Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann in response to the AT&T suit. "Even if the incidental mobile phone playback of a short snippet in a public place were viewed as a ‘public performance' (something no court has ever held, and that would also put you in jeopardy for playing your car radio with the window down), the Copyright Act has a specific exception, 17 U.S.C. 110(4), that covers performances made ‘without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage.' That should take care of ringtones going off in the restaurant."

For more on the ASCAP/Verizon Wireless agreement:
- read this TechCrunch article

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