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A ringtone is

a digital file of a portion of a musical composition or other sound that is designed to be played by a customer's telephone in order to signal an incoming call in the same manner as would a telephone ring.[1]
a phonorecord of a partial musical work distributed as a digital phonorecord delivery in a format to be made resident on a telecommunications device for use to announce the reception of an incoming telephone call or other communications or message or to alert the receiver to the fact that there is a communication or message.[2]

A ringtone is "the sound made by a phone when it receives an incoming call."[3]


A customer can download a ringtone either from the internet or through a properly equipped telephone. To obtain a ringtone, a customer must purchase it and download it to a cellphone.

Downloading a typical thirty-second ringtone takes a matter of seconds. A ringtone cannot be played while it is being downloaded. After a ringtone has been downloaded, a digital file appears on the customer’s telephone. The customer can listen to the downloaded ringtone by clicking on the digital file, but only after it has been fully downloaded. A customer can then set her telephone to play the ringtone when her telephone receives an incoming call.

The customer determines whether and where a ringtone will play when she receives a call by controlling whether her telephone is on or off, whether the telephone is set to indicate an incoming call by playing a ringtone or by some other method (e.g., normal ringing, vibrating), and where the telephone is at any given point. When a ringtone rings, the music or sound clip plays from the digital file stored on the telephone.

Today, a ringtone is often an excerpt of a musical composition embodied in a digital file and rendered into audio. Ringtones, generally no more that 30 seconds in length, are stored in an end user's mobile telephone,[4] pager or other portable communications device and played whenever the device activates its ring or alert function (upon the arrival of a call, message or other notification).

There are two basic types of ringtones: phonic ringtones and mastertones. The most rudimentary ringtone, in musical terms, is the monophonic ringtone that only contains a musical work’s melody (or a portion of the melody). One level up the musical hierarchy is the polyphonic ringtone that contains a work’s melody and harmony (or a portion thereof). The most musically complex ringtones are mastertones.

There are also non-musical ringtones that are becoming increasingly popular with consumers. These include such things as: audio clips from films and television programs; comic routines from Comedy Central; pithy observations by Donald Trump; and announcement of baseball plays.


  1. In re Application of Cellco Partnership d/b/a/ Verizon Wireless, 09 Civ. 70(DLC)(MHD) (Opinion and Order, dated Oct. 14, 2009).
  2. 37 C.F.R. 210.12(d).
  3. Beyond Voice: Mapping the Mobile Marketplace, at 5.
  4. Cellular phones typically have the ability to accept downloads of ringtones, usually directly over the cellphone network. Over the last decade, a new consumer market has developed for musical ringtones.

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