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Mitsubishi ringing up the U.S.

The Japanese company may not be selling phones in the United States anymore, but it still wants to sell ring tones to American cell phone owners.

Mitsubishi Electric may not be selling phones in the United States anymore, but the Japanese company wants to sell ring tones to American cell phone owners, a spokesman said Monday.

The company is searching for a U.S.-based ring tone company in which to invest an undisclosed amount. This would give the carmaker and electronics giant a way to sell these 15-second song snippets directly to U.S. customers, said Tetsuya Otani, Mitsubishi's division manager in Palo Alto, Calif.

"We want to start selling ring tones in the United States," Otani said. "But we have no sales channel."

Mitsubishi's shopping spree lends even more legitimacy to ring tone companies like Zingy and SuperMegaPhone.com, which began distributing ring tones before the major carriers even entered the business.

Early ring tone companies ran into troubles such as copyright-infringement lawsuits from record companies, in a mirroring of the travails of the first companies to distribute songs over the Internet. Yourmobile, for instance, was sued by the recording industry for allegedly distributing songs without proper licensing.

The lawsuit is now settled. Just last month, Vivendi Universal, which owns Universal Pictures, among other businesses, bought Yourmobile.

"Ring tones are the start for wireless downloads, and whether it's graphical downloads or audio downloads, that's the beginning," said Bryan Biniak, Yourmobile's chief operating officer.

In addition to possible copyright problems, some ring tone sellers have a rather fragile distribution network that could disappear by the end of the year.

A Zingy spokesman said 30,000 people a day in the United States are having Zingy ring tones e-mailed to their phones, all for free. The e-mails are sent over the wireless telephone networks of AT&T Wireless and others through an open gateway on the networks. Though the practice is not illegal, carriers are considering whether to shut down these gateways.

Mitsubishi recently announced that it would no longer sell phones in the United States and plans to close its North American sales offices.