Attempts by Apple Computer to launch a European version of its online "Music Store", where people can download individual songs, has been held up until next year by disputes between record companies and their artists over licensing.
The delay could mean more problems for the record companies, which face a growing tide of online piracy with the increase in high-speed "broadband" connections in Europe, and frustration for Apple, which has seen 5 million tracks sold at 99 cents each through its US-only online "iTunes Music Store" since its launch eight weeks ago.
In Europe, though, different artists can have different arrangements in each country over how much they are paid for a digital download - if such clauses are in their contract at all. That has caused headaches for Apple, which wants to take advantage of its momentum in the US to roll the program out in the rest of the world.
Pascal Cagni, vice-president of Apple's European operations, said yesterday: "In Europe the legal environment [for licensing songs for download] is more complicated than in the US, so the one-price-fits-all system that the US uses is difficult to do here. And the major labels themselves haven't sorted out their rights."
Mr Cagni declined to put a date on the timing of the launch, but insisted it would not be ready by September, contrary to some reports. One music industry source said yesterday: "I don't suspect Apple will have this in Europe until next year."
Although the five major record labels have signed internet download deals with a British company, OD2 (Online Digital Distribution) of Bristol, the number of tracks sold is not believed to approach that achieved by Apple's online store.
Both, however, are dwarfed by the number of illicit downloads carried out every day through "peer-to-peer" networks that are increasingly popular with people disenchanted with the price of CDs. Millions of tracks change hands every day through those networks, enabled by broadband connections, to the frustration of the record companies.
However, despite only being accessible to those using the company's newest operating system, Apple's iTunes Music Store has been a hit in the US. The company notes that its statistics suggest that albums are still popular: more than 46 per cent of the songs have been purchased as albums, and more than 80 per cent of the 200,000-plus songs available on the online store have been purchased at least once.
The key to its appeal seems to be simplicity. The "store" is accessed through a simple web browser-like interface to buy individual tracks for 99 cents or entire albums for $9.99, and allows people to "burn" their music on to a CD that will play normally in a car or hi-fi.
By contrast, OD2 - which has a comparable number of tracks for sale - only allows some tracks to be burned on to CD, and requires a subscription; once that expires, the downloaded tracks will not play. OD2 was not able to give a figure for the number of downloads from its system in the past eight weeks.
"The iTunes Music Store is changing the way people buy music," said Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, on Monday. The company is now focusing on developing a version that will be able to draw users of the more widely used Windows operating system: that is expected by the end of the year.