My colleague (and boss) Adam Thierer had a great post last week about how “fart apps” are a great example of the generative nature of the mobile phone application marketplace. But Fart apps are just one type of “soundboard” application. A typical soundboard app has a bunch of buttons, and each time you press a button a sound is played. Most soundboards play catchphrases from popular movies and TV shows. According to AndroidZoom.com, there are 319 applications in the Android Market with “soundboard” in the title or description. Most (280) of them are free.
Almost all the free soundboards I tried include advertising from Google. The three main developers of soundboard apps for Android are Androidz , aspidoff, and Raz Corp. Androidz has ads from DoubleClick and aspidoff and Raz Corp (who’s apps seem exactly the same) both have ads from AdMob (which Google recently acquired). I’m all in favor of ad-supported content, but I suspect that the sound clips used in these soundboards are not licensed. It’s not a bad revenue model—if you don’t mind the fact that it’s illegal. You search the Internet for sound clips from a popular show or movie, generate a soundboard using an off-the-shelf or custom-made soundboard generator, post to the Android Market, and wait for the money to come rolling in. I don’t know how much money one can make off of the advertising from a free soundboard, but the most popular ad-supported soundboard, the You Kicked My Dog soundboard (based on a popular prank phone call), was once ranked the 213th most-popular download in the Android Market (according to AndroidStats.com). The most popular soundboard today seems to be the Mr. T soundboard from gman16k (which is free and doesn’t include any ads). It is currently ranked the 111th most popular Android Market download and according to the Android Market browser on my phone (the Samsung Moment), has been downloaded at least 50,000 times. And the Jeff Dunham soundboard from SoundBored, which costs $0.99, has been downloaded at least 1,000 times and is the 688th most popular app in the Entertainment category of the Android Market. The most popular fart app for Android? Noble Fart (which is free and ad-free). There may be some real money to be made there!
The most interesting aspect to all this is whether Google can be found liable for these presumed copyright infringements. Google bought AdMob specifically to incentivize developers to make applications for Android. Google provides the ad network, tools to help developers integrate ads into their apps, the marketplace application that users use to find and install those applications, and Google even wrote the operating system on which these applications run. The Android Market Developer Distribution Agreement of course requires that developers have all intellectual property rights for the products and materials they distribute through the Android Marketplace (clause 5.5), and disclaims any responsibility on the part of Google for the actions of developers (clauses 4.6 and 4.7). As my PFF colleague Tom Sydnor recently explained, to be found liable for inducing copyright infringement under Grokster, the defendant must be found to have intended and encouraged the product to be used to infringe. That maybe hard to prove, but there may be a better case for a “vicarious-liability claim, which focuses, instead, on broadly defined elements of ‘right-or-ability to control,’ and ‘direct financial benefit.” Google has total control on what apps are available through the Android Market and it believes there is a direct financial benefit in growing the number of applications available–that’s why it bought AdMob.
I don’t want Google to have to police its app store. That’s the whole point of Adam (Thierer)’s post: The fact that Google doesn’t control its app store with an iron fist is a good thing for innovation. I just worry that it may not be a good thing for Google if it means it’s found liable for copyright infringement.