This technology is part of a $2.5 billion market expected to grow soon into a $17 billion yearly market in the US alone. – "Ring Plus: Revolutionizing the Telecommunications Industry", October 2008

Once upon a time, customizing mobile phone ringback tones was popular. The idea that if you called someone, you could hear something less than generic seemed like the forefront of Y2K tech. Back in 2009, music licensing organization BMI predicted that sales of ringback tones would exceed $235 million that year, cornering nearly 4% of the mobile phone market. But just a year later, it revised its numbers downwards, and then, seemingly, ringback tones disappeared altogether.

Ringback tones, to begin with

Ringback tones, or ringing tones, are the sounds you hear when you call someone and before they pick up. It turns out that they differ slightly in regions across the world. In the days prior to mobile phones you may have imagined the rings corresponding to the ones the folks on the other side were hearing (it turns out there's no such guarantee). Have a listen:

… if you called someone in Japan:

… or someone in the US:

… or perhaps someone in Europe:

… or finally the United Kingdom:

The ping-pong case

The idea behind reusing this ringback tone as a way to play music or advertising emerged in South Korea first, filed in patent 1019990005344 as "Advertising Method using Ring-Back Tone" in October of 1999.

In 2001, Karl Seelig and his wife Anita Erickson filed two patents, 20030086558 and 7006608/20030002657, "Telecommunication system using message presentation during a ringing signal period" and "Software algorithm and method enabling message presentation during a telephone ringing signal period", respectively. Karl then founded a company called PromoTel, which subsequently became RingPlus, based on the premise that it could deliver low-cost cell service by playing ads while you waited for the other side to pick up.

In 2006, the tiny Texas-based company challenged AT&T (then doing business as Cingular Wireless), claiming it had infringed upon its patent, stating ringback tones were expected to grow into a $17 billion yearly market in the US alone. AT&T subsequently filed to dismiss the infringement case based on "inequitable conduct", essentially claiming that RingPlus had failed to abide by the right patent rules by not fully disclosing other patents for which it might be based (specifically, patents 20010051517 and 4811382). It then devolved into a case of specifics – did AT&T determine if the phone line was busy first before playing back the ringtone, or did it do it after it had started playing?

Finally, in August of 2010, the Federal District Court in Washington reversed a lower-court ruling, stating that the court did not clearly show that Cingular had evidence that demonstrated intent to deceive by RingPlus, allowing for enforceability of the patent. But by then, the death knell for ringback tones was beginning to ring.

The market share of the ringback tones has decreased over the past couple of years

The revival?

With the ringtones and ringback tone market stagnating at a measly $97 million per year industry in the United States despite all major carriers supporting it in some shape, it comes as a surprise, then, that another company should want to revive it in the context of today's mobile phones. RealNetworks (yes, it still exists) launched an app a month ago called Listen, though to be honest, it's not clear if anyone really is listening, given they had to release a promotional video explaining what it really did. The free and paid versions let you assign ringback tones for up to 25 people, it seems, and RealNetworks says it values the overall ringback tone market at $4 billion annually.

The reaction to it has been mixed, it seems.

"In the U.S., there is a one in 100 chance of finding somebody who's buying ringbacks," said [consumer market research company] NPD Group industry analyst Russ Crupnick, based on its surveys of Internet users. "That's how small the market has become since people bought them on flip-phones."

Who knows, the next time you might call me, I may not pick up for 10 seconds and you'll have to listen to an ad.


  • "Ring Plus, Inc. v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 637 F. Supp. 2d 423 (E.D. Tex. 2009)" link
  • "Ringback Tones Return on RealNetworks 'Listen' App" link
  • "BMI Releases Mobile Music Projections For 2010: Ringback-Tone Sales Flattening, Streaming Rising" link
  • "Ring Plus: Revolutionizing the Telecommunications Industry" link

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