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
    jn, 19 Jan 2007 @ 4:24am

    Watch the slippery slope! (Re: Not the Same)

    Consider the effect of the recently reintroduced bill, "Platform Equality and Remedies for Rights Holders in Music Act", AKA the PERFORM Act. It is easy to argue that the efforts of the RIAA to encumber distribution channels with DCMA schemes of their (the RIAA's) choosing make it more difficult for independent musicians, podcasters, etc. to create and distribute their own content.

    Instead of simply making it illegal, the RIAA can make it infeasible by continually raising the levels of cost and difficulty. Not much difference, from my perspective.

    Let me be clear; I do not advocate breaking the law nor ignoring copyright constraints. However, I equally emphatically do not regard the efforts of e.g. the RIAA and MPAA as being about protecting the royalties of creative artists. These industry organizations are concerned with retaining their role as middlemen between creators and consumers, and the profits and power that accrue to that role.

    By analogy...
    A greedy landowner builds a bridge across a river, using property he owns on both sides. He then begins to impose a toll on everyone who uses his bridge. OK, so far, legally and ethically.
    He then tries to prevent competition by buying up nearby parcels of land along both banks, leaving the only river access in slivers of land too narrow to support bridge building. Legal, though of questionable ethics.
    People continue to build narrow piers on the remaining land, ferrying themselves (or others) across the river in rowboats. The bridge owner counters by getting politicians to write laws that crossing may only be done using horse-drawn or motor vehicles. Down the path to corruption.
    Then the pesky uncooperative "bridge-toll-pirates" go out and buy jet skis and continue their "unauthorized" ferry operations. So the bridge owner attempts to get legislation requiring pneumatic, rubber-tired wheels on all river-crossings (claiming some sort of "passenger safety" issue). ...and the arms race continues!

    There's nothing wrong with an invester putting resources into a profit-making venture. But when he attempts to put artificial constraints on new technology solely for the purpose of retaining his position of power and profit by inhibiting competition, then he is abusing his role and his fellow citizens. Any politician who colludes with him in this effort is corrupt.

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