History Repeats Itself: How The RIAA Is Like 17th Century French Button-Makers

from the no,-seriously... dept

As regular readers know, I've been working through a series of posts on how economics works when scarcity is removed from some areas. I took a bit of a break over the holidays to catch up on some reading, and to do some further thinking on the subject (along with some interesting discussions with people about the topic). One of the books I picked up was one that I haven't read in well over a decade, but often recommend to others to read if they're interested in learning more about economics, but have no training at all in the subject. It's Robert L. Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers. Beyond giving readers a general overview of a variety of different economic theories, the book actually makes them all sound really interesting. It's a good book not necessarily because of the nitty gritty of economics (which it doesn't cover), but because it makes economics interesting, and gives people a good basis to then dig into actual economic theory and not find it boring and meaningless, but see it as a way to better understand what these "philosophers" were discussing.

Reading through an early chapter, though, it struck me how eerily a specific story Heilbroner told about France in 1666 matches up with what's happening today with the way the recording industry has reacted to innovations that have challenged their business models. Just two paragraphs highlight a couple of situations with striking similarities to the world today:
"The question has come up whether a guild master of the weaving industry should be allowed to try an innovation in his product. The verdict: 'If a cloth weaver intends to process a piece according to his own invention, he must not set it on the loom, but should obtain permission from the judges of the town to employ the number and length of threads that he desires, after the question has been considered by four of the oldest merchants and four of the oldest weavers of the guild.' One can imagine how many suggestions for change were tolerated.

Shortly after the matter of cloth weaving has been disposed of, the button makers guild raises a cry of outrage; the tailors are beginning to make buttons out of cloth, an unheard-of thing. The government, indignant that an innovation should threaten a settled industry, imposes a fine on the cloth-button makers. But the wardens of the button guild are not yet satisfied. They demand the right to search people's homes and wardrobes and fine and even arrest them on the streets if they are seen wearing these subversive goods."
Requiring permission to innovate? Feeling entitled to search others' property? Getting the power to act like law enforcement in order to fine or arrest those who are taking part in activities that challenge your business model? Don't these all sound quite familiar? Centuries from now (hopefully much, much sooner), the actions of the RIAA, MPAA and others that match those of the weavers and button-makers of 17th century France will seem just as ridiculous.

If you're looking to catch up on the posts in the series, I've listed them out below:

Economics Of Abundance Getting Some Well Deserved Attention
The Importance Of Zero In Destroying The Scarcity Myth Of Economics
The Economics Of Abundance Is Not A Moral Issue
A Lack Of Scarcity Has (Almost) Nothing To Do With Piracy
A Lack Of Scarcity Feeds The Long Tail By Increasing The Pie
Why The Lack Of Scarcity In Economics Is Getting More Important Now

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  1. identicon
    Curtis, 18 Jan 2007 @ 12:01pm

    You are all wrong, especially David. See #57 (part

    First off... every one is not really wrong but there are a number of errors in comments on both sides of the issue. I am choosing to comment on Davids perspective in comment #57

    David I do not blame you for wanting to make a living at your chosen profession and obviously we are in a time of upheaval for businesses based on content. The thing that has amazed me is that a number of people have made very astute observations that you don't like and you seem to ignore them or lump them in with the ilk that seem to be condoning illegal copyright infrindgement. (note that indeed it is not theft but it is illegal. This is one of several things that is a fact that you seem unable to cope with as you continue to use the words theft and stealing, infringement is the correct term (don't come looking to me for an investment if you don't know your own area of business!). There are several others, like the idea that honest people don't like some reasonable freedoms taken away in order to protect your business from those that are unethical. This is what I will get into below.)

    If fact, I want you (and others in your business) to do well because I like to have access to new and interesting entertainment. This can only happen if you (entertainers and etc.) have some kind of incentive to continue making new content. The trick for our society is to allow this incentive, provide appropriate ways to curtail illegal infringement, and not infringe anyones rights in the process. This seems to be the goal of a number of people in this forum. You seem to be most focused on item 1 & 2 while others seem to be focused on item 3. Somehow all three must be balanced.

    In your comment #57, you say "The comparison between the RIAA and the 17th Century French Button-Makers is plainly a specious comparison" and
    "They are just trying to stop you from using this technology to steal the "buttons" they have already made.

    It's just not the same thing."

    To a degree you make a valid point here. There is a difference between buttons and music or video. A number of different views in the forum stem from this difference. Someone made that comment that in the 17th centurey this was not about the buttons themselves but about the idea of making a button. The idea of making something is a little more like music and video but there are still some differences.
    The problem we have is that of protecting intellectual content and the rights of individules rights within society (Yeah, I know that is a very general statement. As an aside this is all about Intellectual property law (includes copyright and patents (etc)) and I personally think that this area of law as practiced is very broken and if not fixed will cause big economic problems (about 30 - 40 years) in the future. This is the big issue (most likely to hurt us all badly) that is so far out in the future that politicians will not do much to fix it.

    Ok so lets get to where there seems to be a problem in your thinking...
    you then said, "...mentioned that the authorities were allowed to search people's houses for these competing products and stop people on the street if they were caught wearing the contraband.
    While this was no doubt ridiculous and anti-competitive, it still doesn't work as a comparison to what the RIAA is doing.
    Having somebody search your house for stolen goods is fairly routine. That's what the RIAA is asking.
    So why should stolen entertainment be any different?"

    I see two immediate problems here -
    First you say people were being searched then that that is not what the RIAA is doing, then that the RIAA only wants to search you and this is fairly routine and should be OK. (I don;t really see much need to reply to this other then to note that you refuted your own conclusion.) The more important question is if the RIAA should be allowed to search for infringement. (see below)
    Second this is not all that the RIAA is pushing to do. They are also trying to mandate DRM in designs that play content. (And may have other approaches that I will skip here.)

    Lets talk about the searching and the DRM as issues. The question is if these things should be disallowed, allowed, or mandated and under what conditions.

    About searching:
    Under law in the US (for the last 50 years at least) A search warrent can be provided by a court If there is evidence of wrongdoing. This is as true for copyright infringement as for any other law. So exactly what does the RIAA really want? They can already do a search. This should be allowed and it is allowed.

    Apparently the RIAA wants to have full open access to search all consumers at any time without need for a court order. I'd say that this infringes on the consumers right to privacy. If you think this is OK because it will only catch people that have done something wrong then think about the following: I have over the years collected many recordings of Music and Video. Some were purchased (LPs and VHS tapes) Some were recorded off radio and television and are legal fair use recordings. Interestingly enough many of the best things I have recorded under fair use, I have later purchased on CD or DVD (I have more disposable income now.) Some of the very favorites I have converted to formats I can play on my computer or MP3 player (used when I travel) I have also damaged a number of original media (scratches, corrosion on some CDs etc) so I have started a program to back everything up. (also fair use) I do not share any of this material on the internet. (Sometimes I listen or watch with family members - ie fair use) What happens to me when I have one of these searches happen to me? Do you think it will be easy for me to go back and show legal right to every file under fair use? What will I need to prove to be safe?

    As a creator of media you should note that I have spent several thousand dollars over the last five years specifically on items that I originally recorded under legal fair use doctrine. So those recording (which you seem to complain about even in this case where they are legal) have resulted in income to the original media producers.

    About DRM (digital rights management):
    My problem here is that the RIAA and others are attempting to Mandate inclusion of DRM circuitry in all electronic entertainment devices.
    keyword mandate
    While I do believe that if Sony wants to make a player with DRM type Z and Turner Broadcasting only releases media that works with DRM type Z That this is their right to choose this approach to marketing. I think it is wrong to have legislation to mandate DRM in all devices.
    Why do I think that... because it removes my right to create devices without DRM and my right to choose to market my content without DRM. (I am an Electrical Engineer and would like to be able to create the next big product. One of my professors (Thomas Stockham) developed digital recording (see Soundstream Inc.) His technology started the CD industry. He did most of the initial work on a very small budget. If DRM is leagally required in all devices then when I do similar development work on a shoestring (hoping to create a new industry) I become a lawbreaker. The required inclusion of DRM (with patent licenses to obtain) increases the complexity and cost t to the point where I cannot compete with the Multinationals. Development of new things in an inventors garage (Jobs and Wozniak creating the Apple computer) will be a thing of the past.

    There are other reasons I think that mandating DRM is bad. In fact in the case where a manufacturer uses DRM I believe that they should loose the copyright on the "alternatly" protected work. I believe this because the copyright is granted as a protection in return for the work moving into the public domain at the end of the protected time period. The DRM prevents the work from moving into the public domain so the social contract between society and the creator is broken by the creator. Thus they have chosen an alternate protection to copyright. Why should they have the copyright protection if they have "stolen" the incentive that was to be given to society in ruturn for the granted protection?


    RIAA can already search under the laws of the 1950's. They can sue for infringement. Manufacturers can make a player and media using DRM today. Neither of these things needs legislation to allow it to happen. But the DRM legislation does take away real rights from others.

    As I said before:
    The trick for our society is to allow an incentive for creative endevor, provide appropriate ways to curtail illegal infringement, and not infringe anyones rights in the process.

    Doing this correctly is much harder then tossing together some DRM laws that the RIAA and friends are pushing.

    From everything I have seen so far you (David) are in denial and refuse to look at the entire situation. You have made some good comments and the need for appropriate protection of content is important. Unfortunatly the current path pushed by RIAA and others is not a good solution.

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