The ringtone market has been under pressure for some time, caused mainly by content providers' greed, but also by the growing number of ways for users to make their own ringtones from digital music files. A Silicon Valley startup called Phonezoo is targeting this market in a somewhat interesting way: users can submit their own ringtones for others to download for free, but if the ringtone is of a copyrighted song, users must upload a digital version of the song to "prove" they own it. Once you do this, Phonezoo apparently takes that upload and extracts the relevant snippet, or lets users edit it before downloading. It's a cool idea, and it's great to see free ringtones -- however it seems awfully unlikely that the recording industry will agree. Phonezoo's model sounds pretty similar to that of MP3.com's My.MP3.com service of several years ago, which gave users access to online copies of music once they'd inserted a copy of a CD in their computer to verify they actually owned it. The service, of course, got shut down by the record labels in 2000, and although many people thought MP3.com had plenty of grounds to appeal, the legal system made it essentially impossible for them to do so. Phonezoo's raised money from a group of angel investors including well-known VC Tim Draper, and is now looking to raise a few million dollars more -- but they're probably going to need much more than that to battle the record labels. Despite the weakness of the MP3.com decision, it looks like Phonezoo is setting themselves up for an uphill battle, After all, it's really difficult to see how uploading a ripped or downloaded version of a song actually proves a user legitimately bought it. Still, this doesn't validate the recording industry's approach to the ringtone market, which is based, essentially, on ripping people off and using lawsuits to protect the market. Call us crazy, but combining sales of recorded music with ringtones and other types of content so they offer consumers better value is just one idea they could use in an attempt to grow, rather than just try to maintain, their sales.
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