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
    Trey, 7 Feb 2007 @ 2:59pm

    Re: devastation

    Ah yes, the folks in Hollywood are at such a threat. I mean you can see it everyday. I just don't see how they can manage to pay everyone with those profits. (note the sarcasm)

    An invasion of privacy on a whim is the problem with this whole "MAFFIA" thing. There is no real threat to your industry. Every theater is always packed in every city I've been to. The only one that would be threatened by the free distrubution is the little guy that doesn't make it to the theaters, like all the great independent films out there. But isn't that what the little guy wants, to be heard....to be seen. From that distrubution then the true compensation is given under the human truths-to be understood, to feel in control, to feel special, to belong and to reach ones potential (to be loved). After that recognition, the artist will get what he deserves for that production.

    Most people are generally good hearted. Most of these "pirates" just want to stick it to the organizations that profit hugely without providing any true service to mankind. They just leech off others in order to get even more money. And that goes for those that profit from selling copied property. What made them change the policy from pursuing those that copy for profit to those that just do it for personal use? Is it because it's easier to copy now due to technology, more people can see/hear this stuff now. There are also more people. Stuff also costs more money. BUT, people as a race are developing at a much faster rate due to the information exchange. Communication has, in my opinion, been the greastest contributor to the advancment of the human species. Stop being so selfish. Our FEAR of being the only ones in the universe has brought it to this. Imagine(remember) that we are not. We can be stomped out just like a hill of ants. Life is much more than what we see. Think of the world before the microscope. We just havn't developed the tools yet.....
    Woah....I'm writing my book now......if you would like to know/share more just contact me.

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