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
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2007 @ 12:04pm

    >You seem to be taking the attitude that "if we have the
    >technical means to steal, then that's our right, and content
    >providers will have to work around US instead of the other
    >way around".

    I head read this entire thread and have not once see anyone post a message with this view, howver I have seen several post a "you seem to support piracy" response, and then then attack back.

    I can only conclude that these posts are intentionally being left by people with vested interest in protecting that industry.

    In fact, movies can exist without the MPAA, music without the RIAA. They did before they existed. The pain garage bands and independent film makers have today in selling their wares are the results of these organizations. Internet provides a distribution channel to millions with minimal costs and WITH NO MIDDLEMAN. The RIAA is on record statng they want to stop legal copying and all personal recording devices. They WANT to eliminate ownership and charge per listen. They see the possibility in technology to do it. They have been making CDs for years and the costs have never dropped nor have artists compensations increased.

    The internet is eliminating dependency on promotional and distribution channels. it is leveling the playing field between user and distributor, and creating direct connections between artist and fan.
    It is obvious that the RIAA is not going after the people pirating material -- they are going after control of the consumer. When you listen to people, it is obvious they are willing to pay reasonable fees for products and want artists to be compensated. No one ever says they believe music should be free. When you listen to the artists, it is obvious they, like all creative people, are happy to be heard and would do it even if they didn't get paid (and often do). The artist is not scared, the consumer is not scared (except of the government or these organizations, not of the internet and digial media). Only these middlemen are scared.

    Everytime I hear a "just because you can steal it doesn't make it right" is stating a position no one disagrees with but is also NOT what is being discussed.

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