Messier Torpedoes Middelhoff’s Hopes For UMG Involvement In Napster Sub Service
Don't expect Universal Music Group to join the planned Bertelsmann-Napster subscription service anytime soon. According to Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier, who will rule the merged Vivendi Universal media empire, Napster is operating outside the law, a reality that, in Messier's mind, supersedes its status as the largest and fastest-growing community of music fans in history.

During an interview with Britain's redherring.com that also included votes of confidence in UMG chief Doug Morris, Canal Plus ruler Pierre Lescure and USA Networks head Barry Diller (Vivendi Universal has a 45% stake in the company), Messier made it clear that he does not intend to play ball with Bertelsmann boss Thomas Middelhoff, a longtime friend who just happens to sit on the Vivendi board.

"On a strategic basis, I do understand this deal, [but] I am in disagreement with the tactics," Messier said of Middelhoff's bold move to affiliate his conglom with the Napster phenomenon.

While not ruling out the possibility of dtente down the road, Messier made it clear that there would be no agreement between UMG and BMG-Napster until the legal status of the file-sharing service is resolved. "As we have done for MP3.com, our position—Universal Music's position—is that we want to get to the end of the legal fight" he explained. "And we will pursue the legal fight against Napster because we do think that before dealing with those kinds of companies—like we have done with MP3.com—we have to get to a point where there is a full legal recognition of the value of intellectual property rights. And as that has not been made, it is too early to deal with those kinds of companies."

The executive pointed to Universal's aggressively litigious stance in the MP3.com court case as a model for its approach to Napster. "We have reached that point that we did agree on the judge's recommendation with MP3.com, to settle with [the netco]. That's what we intend to do with Napster. So we will continue the legal fight."

Regarding Middelhoff's spot on the Vivendi board, most certainly a potential conflict of interest, Messier was circumspect: "If at some point it is unsustainable that one of us is a board member of the other side, we will discuss it between us, not make any public announcement before we reach a decision."

And what of Vivendi Universal's own attitude toward acquisitions? Messier said the conglom would be "pragmatic and opportunistic," particularly with prospective good fits whose stock is depressed.

The Vivendi-Seagram merger will be put to a vote by shareholders Dec. 5 in Paris.