9 July 2009

ASCAP, AT&T and ringtones

ASCAP is suing AT&T in the USA for copyright infringements when an AT&T subscriber’s phone plays a ringtone. ASCAP is a collecting society for public performance and broadcast rights. It alleges that when the subscriber receives a phone call in, say, a restaurant and the phone plays a ringtone it is a performance in public that needs a licence.

Fred Lohman from the EFF says this claim is doomed in America. Their copyright act has §110(4) that excludes from the public performance right ‘performances made “without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage.”‘

Why wouldn’t Telstra or Optus or, for that matter, Apple be liable in Australia if APRA or PPCA came calling?

We don’t have a §110(4) so, if you were in a restaurant or walking down Collins St in rush hour and your phone started playing a ringtone you had installed, you the phone owner wouldn’t be able to use Fred Lohman’s escape clause.

So could the phone company or Apple or whoever sold you the ringtone potentially be liable for authorising your infringement (if it be an infringement)? If we are still living in the world where Telstra was liable for the music on hold played by users of Telstra’s network (before the Act was changed by the Digital Agenda Act), the question doesn’t seem so fanciful?

The phone company or whoever could presumably be liable only on the basis of authorising the phone user’s conduct which would have to be infringing in itself. Now, liability for authorisation may not be a foregone conclusion; but in Cooper, the ISP was liable at least in part because it could have prevented the website even operating. Would it make a difference if the alleged authoriser just provided the phone or the ringtone?

One argument might be that if you, the subscriber, paid for and downloaded something described as a “ringtone”, there must be an implied licence. Maybe. But in an awful lot of cases, the person who can give you rights to download and store the ringtone on your phone will not have rights to license the performance right – that right will have been assigned to, you guessed it, APRA or another collecting society. Although APRA and AMCOS now seem to be “almost” the same entity.

Surely, a court would find that, although the ringtone might be heard incidentally in public by unwitting passersby or bystanders, the playing of the ringtone was really in private? Well, maybe. But then why have those exceptions in the Act for incidental uses of things like artistic works in public places (s 65) or reading or recitation of reasonable portions of published literary or dramatic works (s 45)? (At least, you wouldn’t have to pay a licence fee for the lyrics!) and making temporary copies as part of a technical process of use (s 111B)? And there is a specific statutory licence for the playing in public of sound recordings (s 108).

Maybe a court could be persuaded to look a little more liberally at whether or not a ringtone is a substantial part of the original recording? A ringtone afterall can only be 30 seconds in duration. This seems very unlikely given that 8 bars of  Colonel Bogey infringed.

Is there something wrong with the way we legislate specific exceptions for specific technological problems?

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