Global Economics

Mick Jagger Helps EU Tackle Online Retailing


In Brussels, the Rolling Stones lead singer talked with commissioners about anomalies in music downloads and licensing

Rolling Stone lead singer Mick Jagger visited the European Commission on Wednesday (17 September) for a roundtable discussion on online retailing with competition commissioner Neelie Kroes and internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy.

The original "street-fightin' man" no longer needs to throw cobblestones to get the attention of the centres of power like his 1968 incarnation. These days he is warmly invited to the top floors of the commission building for a friendly chat with Europe's competition guardian and a host of key figures in the business of commerce on the web.

Ms Kroes is worried that shoppers frequently find themselves up against barriers to buy what they want online, for items they would have little problem purchasing in the real world.

"Why is it possible to buy a CD from an online retailer and have it shipped to anywhere in Europe, but it is not possible to buy the same music, by the same artist, as an electronic download with similar ease?" Ms Kroes asked the knighted pop star and other guests.

"Why do pan-European services find it so difficult to get a pan-European license? Why do new, innovative services find licensing to be such a hurdle?"

The commission meeting also saw the CEO of Apple, the originator of the hugely successful fee-for-service music download shop iTunes, invited. The head of record label EMI also attended.

"I never thought the internet was going to be such a stumbling block," said Mr McCreevy. "This magical creation - invented by people who hadn't been born 50 years ago and developed by people, some of whom were not even born 25 years ago - has no natural physical frontiers or boundaries like traditional markets. But somehow it has been trapped and parcelled up by a whole series of barriers."

He added that the commission needed to look at the "present system of awarding one licence for one kind of right, limited to one territory at a time".

The EU executive in his opinion also needs to investigate "the idea that every single owner of a copyright – from authors and composers to music publishers and record labels – should license downloads individually through a collecting society that has an exclusive mandate for each of the 27 national territories."

The problems of online retailing are not restricted to the music sector, with the heads of Alcatel-Lucent, Ebay, Louis Vuitton and UK consumer watchdog "Which?" also at Wednesday's gathering.

"Should a company, for example, be allowed to exclude internet-only retailers from its distribution system? I have heard today from companies who think that that is the best way to protect a brand image," Ms Kroes said.

"I have also heard from companies that use internet only retailers but impose strict conditions on them. And I have also heard from consumers who believe that consumers should have the right to choose."

The assembled retail stakeholders' answer to Ms Kroes' questions was that the issue is "complex."

But Ms Kroes warned the rock star and the merchants: "The world is always more complicated than we would like it to be. But that is no excuse for inaction," adding that she intends to look "very carefully" into online retailing practices.

She warned that the commission will step in if musicians, record labels and retailers do not overcome their differences and produce a more consumer-friendly environment for the distribution of digital music.

Mr Jagger and the others are to participate in the drafting of a commission report on the subject later in the year.

The EU executive will then solicit responses to the report from stakeholders until 15 October 2009 and subsequently unveil legislative proposals on internet retailing.

The Rolling Stones may have declared in 1968 that the time is right for a "palace revolution" and complained that in sleepy London Town "the game to play is compromise solution." But the pop star may have to play the game himself in Brussels forty years down the line.

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