Alastair’s Place

Software development, Cocoa, Objective-C, life. Stuff like that.

Between Rock and a Hard Place

OK, so there’s been much talk about ringtones on the iPhone and the fact that you can’t make them without spending more money (at least, not officially). We’ve had this piece from John Gruber and this one from MacWorld’s Dan Frakes.

For the record, I’m fairly certain that the problem isn’t Apple’s fault, and, moreover, that there isn’t anything they could do about it without landing themselves in court and/or jeopardising their iTunes business and the ecosystem based on it.

Clearly, Apple’s licenses to distribute music on the iTunes store in many cases included terms preventing it from using the music for ringtones. As far as the tracks that can be used for ringtones go, either (a) they were already permitted to make ringtones and decided to charge a small fee in an effort to show the other licensors that they would make money if they allow Apple to use their songs as ringtones, or (b) the licensors they were negotiating with insisted on a charge.

The problem here is really that Apple are stuck; fair use doesn’t cover commercial scale distribution of the kind we’re talking about with iTunes. You as an end-user may have fair-use (though don’t bet on it: not all jurisdictions have fair-use legislation… there’s a lot of mistaken coverage of this issue, particularly in the British media, who often read articles written in the U.S. and assume that the law is the same here—it isn’t). But Apple itself has contractual agreements that it needs to uphold, and the company will also want to negotiate some position on ringtones with other licensors who haven’t signed up yet.

Of course, we all agree that the “ringtones racket” is just one big scam. Originally, the market for ringtones was created because mobile phones used piezoelectric sounders rather than speakers and could only make a variety of (rather raucous) beeping noises. As a result, you needed someone to convert a musical score into a form suitable for the phone. Obviously there is effort involved here and nobody would argue that a charge in such a situation was unreasonable.

But as mobile phones have developed, many of them have gained the ability to play any audio as a ringtone. And therein lies the problem. A “ringtone”, if it exists at all, is really a sequence of notes intended to be played by a piezoelectric buzzer or (if you were lucky) a MIDI instrument built in to your phone. Trying to label a segment of a song you already purchased as a “ringtone” and then telling you that you need to pay again to use it as such is simply unjustifiable.

(And, I might add, I’m a strong supporter of copyright and copyright holders’ ability to license their material under reasonable terms. But, yet again, the telephone industry has been caught ripping people off; only this time, the blame has been focused unfairly on Apple, who, to be frank, are in the same boat as the rest of us on this.)