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
    patman, 19 Jan 2007 @ 1:38am

    wake up !!

    It's really scary to see how far behind we are today.

    If you are a true artist your main interest is to be HEARD. Any decent musician or artist would be able to live very well on their music even if EVERYONE could share their work. You have to think alternative revenue streams and perhaps no GOLD humvee the first two months you make a hit. How people think that you cannot make a living on concerts, live performances, materials are beyond me. That's how a musician should be making their money.

    Imagine what a healthy win win situation for everyone if artists made their music available online for free and had their business model around concerts, material, performances, shows, etc. Oh yeah, middle man like MPAA and RIAA would not gain anything here.

    Culture needs to be shared and enjoyed ! I made a home video of my 1 year old daughter. I didn't even dare to put some cool copyrighted background music because I'm afraid that some IDIOT (MPAA or RIAAA) would sue me. I'd be "using" their kind of music.

    If you don't understand any better you can argue that downloading music is "stealing" music. Just like Mona Lisa, every time you make a xerox copy of her you are stealing the work. But it's culture which needs to be shared and enjoyed. This is the main issue, people are never going to understand this because they are soo close minded. Culture HAS to be free and there ARE enough alternative revenue streams to make it happen.

    Bottom line, as long as it's for non profit - things need to be shared. If you don't want your work to be admired then DON'T release it.

    I say to you all that MPAA / RIAA is to the American consumers and the American innovation as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.

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