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

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Tim Connors, 18 Jan 2007 @ 8:08pm


    David, you can also produce a decent enough movie for under $10,000. Yes, in modern times. I have seen a couple of movies in Australia within the last decade, and one this year, that cost that much to produce, and they were a hell of a lot more interesting than hollywood blockbusters.

    That line that it has the potential to devestate your industry isn't going to be bought again. It has been repeated by RIAA members since the time of cassette tapes, everytime a new technology become popular. It hasn't killed their members -- in fact, they are still releasing press releases boasting about record profits alongside press releases complaining about teh intarweb. If it hasn't killed them, MPAA members claims that "it has the potential to kill our industry" just doesn't have credibiility. What makes your and their industries more important than every other tech industry combined? Why, other than having lots of bought representation, do you think laws should favour you guys more than everyone else?

    Again, the RIAA, when lodging suits against individual people, may claim that individual customers may be costing them US $65,000 when they download music instead of buying it. But I am yet to meet a person who would pay a fithieth of that for their collection. They haven't really cost $65,000 -- the figures are deliberately inflated. Both of your industries have very little credibility.

    You say that the movie and music industries aren't trying to stop anyone making their own content. The MPAA is currently forcing hardware manufacturers to go down the lines of DRM. Microsoft is going along with this because they finally have the means to stamp out Linux on newer hardware (heck, they can make it illegal, and persue Linux developers the same way that DVD Jon and Sklyarov were persued). MPAA members love it because they will be able to stop small content producers from producing their own content -- if they can't produce a DVD with an official key, Windows will refuse to play it because it *must* be pirated. Just like the RIAA wanted to impose taxes on blank media, because then small content producers would have to pay the tax paid to RIAA members, nominally to protect their own work, when in fact RIAA wouldn't be providing that service to them!

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.