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Study: Ring tones heavily shoplifted

Wireless operators, recording studios stand to lose millions of dollars annually because of a rising tide of ring tone theft.

Online sound snippets intended to help market ring tones sold by phone operators and other distributors often are illegally downloaded and used free of charge, a new study found.

Cell phone operators and ring tone sellers typically make available on their Web sites ring tone previews of 15 to 30 seconds. But almost 40 percent of cell phone operators and nearly a third of independent ring tone sellers don't secure the previews, which can be downloaded onto a personal computer, then changed into a usable ring tone, according to the study.

Almost two-thirds of the 100 Web sites checked offered previews that were suitably long to make a ring tone, according to research by Qpass, a digital-content distributor based in Seattle.

Ring tones, recorded sound segments that replace a cell phone's prepackaged ringer, are typically priced at $1 each. Shoplifted ring tones have so far cost cell phone operators and other ring tone sellers about $40 million in lost revenue, while lost revenue from ring tone shoplifting will total $123 million by 2007, the study predicted.

"This is the mobile and cyber equivalent of test-driving a car and then not having to give it back," Qpass senior vice president Steve Shivers said. "The amount of revenue loss to both the mobile and music industries is a concern."

Representatives of the cellular trade organization Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment on the study. The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents major recording interests, declined to comment.