In re: Verizon Wireless: Federal District Court Rules Ringtones Not Public Performance

Copyright Patent

In re: In the Matter of the Application of Cellco Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless, Case Nos. 09-cv-07074 & 41 Civ. 1395 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 14, 2009)

Opinion (Hosted by EFF)

The Southern District of New York has ruled that cell phone ringtones do not constitute a public performance, and thus mobile phone carriers do not need to pay performance royalties under the Section 110(4) of the Copyright Act.  The court also dismissed the argument that cell phone carriers publicly perform when they reproduce and download a ringtone to a phone.

United States District Judge Denise Cote dismissed the music industry argument that a ringtone is like a concert hall when it begins ringing/playing in public, instead determining that playing music in public, when done without any commercial purpose, does not infringe copyright.   In so holding, the court ruled that cell phone users are not liable for royalty payments and that carriers are not secondarily liable.  Judge Cote reasoned that the exemption Section 110(4) applies because cell phones announce phone calls and are not sources of commercial public entertainment.

Ars Technica and provide an overview of the case.  Both EFF and CDT applaud the decision as a major win for consumers and fair use.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (“ASCAP”), which collects royalty payments for public performances of songs, argued that the wireless cellular companies engage in public performance of musical works when they download ringtones to customers’ phones, and should be directly and secondarily liable when customers play ringtones on their telephones.  It requested additional royalties for these performances under Copyright law.  In a different strategy from the RIAA’s lawsuit campaign against individual users, the ASCAP instead went after AT&T and Verizon for revenues above those already paid for download rights.

The court reasoned that downloading a ringtone to a customer’s cellular telephone does not “transmit” a performance of the work to the public because only one subscriber is capable of receiving the transmission and it is not made available to the larger public.

ASCAP also argued that cellular companies engaged in a public performance of copyrighted musical works when ringtones play in public on customers’ cellular telephones.  The court ruled, however, that the cellular companies do not “recite, render, play, dance, or act [the ringtone] either directly or by means of any device,” and thus do not “perform” the music, as that term is defined in the Copyright Act.

The court held that secondary liability depends upon a finding of direct or primary infringement, and that Verizon “has shown that the cellular telephone user is not liable for copyright infringement even when the telephone rings in a public setting.”  Moreover, the court reasoned that without a commercial purpose in the playing of the ringtone, the public performance exemption in 110(4) applies.

The ruling is a win for consumers because it expands the public performance right and preserves the ability of consumers to make private uses of the music they legally purchase.  It also expands a 2007 ruling that likewise concluded that a download is not a public performance.