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US music royalties' collector sues T-Mobile over ringback tones

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Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) quietly filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the US wing of T-Mobile last month.

On 19 December the performing rights’ group fingered the telecoms firm for allegedly using unlicensed copies of BMI’s repertoire on its ringback tones service.

The BMI said it had licensed ringback tones on all of the major wireless carriers, but claimed that T-Mobile had declined to ink any such deal.

“Despite extensive BMI efforts spanning several years, T-Mobile has not signed a licence agreement,” said the org, which collects and distributes licensing revenues to nearly half a million music makers in the US, in a statement to The Register.

A lawsuit was filed with the US Federal Court in the Central District of California, Los Angeles last month.

BMI said it was suing T-Mobile on more than 50 titles from its repertoire, however, it didn’t confirm which publishers, songwriters or other music biz individuals the suit represented.

In July last year, the American Society of Composer, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) - that collects royalties and licences on behalf of 350,000 members in the US - filed a similar lawsuit against telecoms giant AT&T, in which it told a federal court that ringtones fell under the public perfomance Copyright Act.

The Electronic Freedom Frontier refuted such action as “outlandish”. Copyright law exempts performance "without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage”, argued EFF senior intellectual property attorney Fred von Lohmann at the time.

"Are the millions of people who have bought ringtones breaking the law if they forget to silence their phones in a restaurant? Under this reasoning from ASCAP, it would be a copyright violation for you to play your car radio with the window down!"

Attorney Milord Keshishian claimed in a post on his website earlier this week that the ringback tones were stored on T-Mobile's servers, and then streamed to the caller’s phone. The caller pays $1.49 per month for the songs, while songs are bought for $1.99 each.

We asked T-Mobile to comment on this story, but at time of writing it hadn’t got back to us. ®

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