'Rock Around the Clock" plays on Ara Aprahamian's cell phone whenever he receives a call--a jangly digital rendition of Bill Haley's classic "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock."
Before that it was the theme to "Knight Rider," then Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" and then a-ha's "Take on Me."
Since the 20-year-old discovered downloadable ring tones on the Internet a year ago, he has changed the ring on his phone every few weeks, preferring to stick with TV theme songs because they are easier for others to recognize.
"After a while you get sick of it," he said. "You just go on and get a new one."
Conceived as a way to help cell phone users distinguish their calls from everyone else's, changeable rings have become a fashion accessory that personalizes a ubiquitous and impersonal piece of technology. But tunes that may be just too cute to you may be downright grating to others. And at the same time, the distribution of ring tones across international borders raises tough questions about copyright infringement as millions of users worldwide download their favorite tunes.
"It's the noisy silent revolution," said Ralph Simon, chairman of Santa Monica-based YourMobile Networks, one of the world's largest ring tone distributors.
Noisy because everyone is talking. Silent because unlike other parts of the world--where cell phones are so prolific that some birds in Denmark mimic ring tones and an Israeli orchestra included them in a recent symphony--the United States has only recently begun to sing along.
Since its launch last spring, YourMobile has distributed more than 56 million ring tones worldwide, from Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to Disney's "Hakuna Matata." Dozens of other Web sites boast ring tones from movie soundtracks, national anthems and school fight songs. At least one site specializes in video game ring tones. Another distributes mystery movie sound effects.
Choosing a ring tone can be a very intimate decision. Unlike other forms of personalizing cell phones--colored faceplates and logos, for example--the ring tone can literally announce your favorite television show, alma mater and even nationality to the rest of the world.
"You carry [your cell phone] around with you so it's kind of an extension of you," said Ted Browne, manager of Ericsson product marketing. "It enables you to demonstrate who and what you are as a person."
The interest in individualizing ring tones has driven some cell phone manufacturers to include melody composers in their latest models, allowing mobile users to create their own ring tones.
With the abundance of inexpensive downloadable tunes on the Internet--most sites charge about a dollar a download--it's not uncommon to find that someone else shares your favorite song.
While at the grocery store one day, Anthony Stonefield heard the Tupac Shakur tune he had programmed to play when his fiancee called. As the CEO of YourMobile reached for his phone, the teenager in line next to him did the same; both had downloaded the song.
As mobile technology improves so that a single mobile phone can download and store up to 100 ring tones, the original purpose of these musical tunes--to differentiate between your phone and someone else's--may become further diluted, Stonefield said.
Even at Stonefield's Santa Monica office, when a cell phone rings, everyone still checks his or her mobile. After changing ring tones so often, "none of us remembers who . . . downloaded that ring tone," Stonefield said.
While most overseas countries use one main voice-transmission mode, the United States uses four. Only those that include Short Message Service, the same channel used to send text messages, can download ring tones.
Each ring tone is composed of a string of letters and numbers that represent its musical composition. After you select a downloadable ring tone from a Web site, the language for that tune is sent through SMS to your phone number. The phone then converts the letters and numbers into sounds.
The process is relatively simple and can be completed in minutes, making it possible for almost anyone to download almost any song from almost anywhere in the world. But that global accessibility has raised the question of who has the right to govern--and impose fees on--ring tone distribution: the country where the ring tone server is located or the country where the download takes place.
If, for example, an American downloads a ring tone from a U.S. company, U.S. regulations would usually apply. However, if that same user purchases a ring tone from a European Web site, a different set of regulations--such as importation laws--could apply.
With today's "mobile nomads," such as Americans who use their European-made cell phones while on business in Asia, the situation could become even more complicated.
"[We are] moving into unknown territory where there are no national borders," said Simon of YourMobile.
There are no established copyright regulations either.
Though licensing rules should apply for downloadable ring tones in the same way that they would for any other use of copyrighted material, "the Internet has had its problems only because the users thought it was a new media and thought new rules applied," said Edward P. Murphy, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Assn.
Last year, licensing fees for music generated $550 million in the United States. As downloadable ring tones become more popular, music publishers want their share, Murphy said.
EMI Music sued YourMobile last year, claiming the company did not obtain the proper licenses to distribute its songs in the form of ring tones. The suit was settled and YourMobile recently signed an agreement with several music publishing companies. But a general licensing standard has yet to be established, said Murphy, who has met with several ring tone distributors to discuss the issue.
Various concerns--such as an individual's right to share ring tones and the length of time a user may have access to a downloaded tune--are under debate, he said, adding that they will most likely be resolved company by company, country by country.
In addition to the revenue they will potentially generate, ring tones also offer some artists the opportunity to reach new audiences. Younger cell phone users who have never heard Frank Sinatra's "My Way" in traditional form can now experience it through ring tones.
"I think the potential for any media that exposes a song is good," Murphy said.
But for some, the jingle and jangle of a cell phone is not music to the ears.
Excessive ringing in restaurants, theaters and other public areas prompted Canadian and Hong Kong governments to consider licensing cell phone jammers that would prevent mobiles from ringing in designated areas.
Though blocking radio waves is illegal in the United States, at least one company is developing a device that would automatically turn cell phones on vibrate or lower the ring tone when within a certain radius.
Users can still send and receive messages with Q-Zone, but "you're just no longer announcing that you have a call," said Mary Beth Griffin, executive vice president of BlueLinx.
Though the product is not yet on the market, Griffin said the company has received phone calls and e-mails from funeral home directors, hotel owners and librarians who simply want a bit of peace and quite.
"People are hooked," she said. "They're not going to give [their cell phones] up, so it's just a matter of finding a method to deal with it."
Christine Frey is a freelance writer.
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Top 10 Ring Tone Downloads From YourMobile
Song Artist "Last Resort" Papa Roach "Take On Me 1" A1 "Hakuna Matata" "Lion King" soundtrack "Winnie the Pooh" "California Love" 2Pac and Dr. Dre "Theme From Buffy" "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" "Mambo Italiano" Shaft "Bad Boys" (theme from "Cops") Inner Circle "Don't Call Me Baby" Madison Avenue "The Bare Necessities" "The Jungle Book" soundtrack
Top 10 Ring Tone Downloads From YourMobile