The cost of ringtones can really add up if you want to personalize the calls you receive. For example, when I first bought my phone, I had three ringtones. One for my family, one for my close friends, and one for "everyone else." Now I have a ringtone for my mom, a ringtone for my dad, one for my sisters and my brothers-in-law, one for everyone else, one for voicemail, and one for text messages. That's seven ringtones. But I know who is calling me when my phone rings, and I know what kind of message I am receiving, so it's remarkably efficient (for me). If you change phones often, you'll soon find out that your ringtones don't transfer, and you'll have to download new ringtones again. That can really irritate you, too.
Ringtones generally cost money. This is a way for your service provider to make money. Plus, these songs or sound bits were created by someone, who probably deserves credit and copyright. (A song, even as a ringtone, still deserves to be covered under royalties; in 2009 ASCAP tried to sue cell phone providers for performance fees, but the suit was thrown out.)
So for the purposes of this lesson, let's pretend that you have a digital file that is not copyrighted, and belongs to you (like the sound of your niece talking) and would like it as a ringtone. (You might want to look into Audacity if you are going to create the file yourself.)
You will need the file to be in MP3 format. If you have e-mail access on your phone, you could e-mail the file and open it on your phone. Your phone will probably take care of it from here.
Or you can use a Web site that exists for this purpose, like phonezoo.com. (This is not an endorsement.) The Web site takes your files and send the files to your phone as a text message. phonezoo.com has some rules about copyright however, and prefers to follow the law.
TechCrunch has a review worth reading. Here's how the site discussed the service in 2006:
On the copyright question, PhoneZoo lists two types of ring tones available for sharing. Public domain files can be downloaded by anyone. Ringtones from copyrighted music can be listened to, discussed, searched for – but not downloaded until you upload a copy of the whole song yourself. It’s an interesting way to get around having PhoneZoo held responsible for copyright violations.When phonezoo.com sends the text message, my phone asks if I'd like to save the attached file as a ringtone. I say yes, and immediately set the text message to my contact(s).
When you upload a copyrighted song, the ring tone creation tool opens with the same tone duration, title fields and excerpted section of your file as the ring tone you wanted to receive from some one else. You can then make any changes you want, for example you might like the section of a song someone has excerpted but want to extend it by 2 seconds to capture another couple of beats. I can imagine people enjoying that.
It’s all opt-in of course, there’s nothing enforcing any kind of copyright protection – no rights detection software apparently, for example. It’s an intriguing system. Best of all it’s relatively simple and it works.
If you're going to search the web for free ringtones, do be careful. Free ringtones are deeply desired, and the search is a minefield of malware and unnecessary advertisements. So click wisely.
You can avoid this hassle entirely by making your own ringtone. I'm not 100% walking you through this. You'll need a phone that supports MP3 ringtones, and e-mail and/or text messaging on your phone. If you're up for the challenge—and I assure you it's easy—check the resources below.
Ringing up cash: ASCAP suing AT&T for ringtone "performance", ars technica
PhoneZoo: Fast, Free Copyrighted Ringtones to Share, TechCrunch
Geek to Live: Make a ringtone from any MP3, Lifehacker
Make an iPhone Ringtone with iTunes in Windows, Lifehacker
Create Custom iPhone Ringtones the Free and Apple Way