Define ‘Performance’: BMI Targets T-Mobile on Ringback Claim

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Performance rights group BMI, or Broadcast Music Inc., is firing its legal guns at T-Mobile USA over unpaid royalties for ringback tones. BMI has previously signed agreements with other US-based carriers, but T-Mobile has yet to sign a license agreement despite extensive efforts spanning several years, according to the organization. The complaint was officially filed on December 21st in the US District Court for the Central District of California, Los Angeles.

BMI’s legal challenge represents a risk for the organization, as T-Mobile has valid arguments for resisting payment. A principal reason is that ringback tones are played to a very private audience of one caller, while ringtones can generally be heard by larger numbers of surrounding people. This is the basis of a recent complaint by BMI, which argues that T-Mobile’s actions are in violation of copyright laws.

The legal challenge also raises the question of whether ringback tones are considered public performances. US courts have recently ruled that ringtones are not public performances, and the decision could influence the outcome of this case. “When a ringtone plays on a cellular telephone, even when that occurs in public, the user is exempt from copyright liability, and Verizon is not liable either secondarily or directly,” US District Court judge Denise Cote opined in a mid-October decision against ASCAP. That ruling also carried over to a similar complaint against AT&T.

However, this case is not as clear-cut as the previous cases involving ringtones. Ringback tones are played to a very private audience of one caller, whereas ringtones can be heard by larger numbers of surrounding people. This distinction could be a determining factor in the outcome of the case.

BMI has pointed to agreements with other US-based carriers as evidence of its legitimacy and continued resistance by T-Mobile. However, T-Mobile has argued that ringback tones are not public performances, and therefore should not be subject to royalties. The company has valid reasons for resisting payment, as they argue that ringback tones are played to a very private audience of one caller, and therefore do not constitute a public performance.

The case is set to be heard in the US District Court for the Central District of California, Los Angeles. It remains to be seen how the court will rule, and whether ringback tones will be considered public performances. The outcome of this case could have significant implications for the music industry, as it could set a precedent for how royalties are collected for new forms of music distribution and consumption.

In conclusion, the legal challenge by BMI against T-Mobile over unpaid royalties for ringback tones raises important questions about the definition of public performances and the collection of royalties in the music industry. While BMI has pointed to agreements with other US-based carriers as evidence of its legitimacy, T-Mobile has argued that ringback tones are not public performances and should not be subject to royalties. The outcome of this case could have significant implications for the music industry, and it remains to be seen how the court will rule.