Ramblings

by Mike Masnick




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
    Rob S., 16 Feb 2007 @ 11:07am

    Infringement, theft, and other definitions

    I hold several patents in the area of high technology and I think everybody can learn from the system in place there.

    As everybody knows (or not), that every patent applied for is made public during examination and is permanently published at the online database of the USPTO.

    The prior art, total content, and detailed workings (indefinite language is not allowed so as to prevent abuse) is thus made public knowledge.

    Other companies (other than the company of the patent holder) can consider the content and even privately test the thing out.

    Once they are sure that they want to use the content for their own profit, they would license or buy the patent from the original inventor as if the creation of the content was a service, which it is because, if the service was not done, then the content would likely not exist for consumption at the current time.

    The price is mutually agreed.

    Now, the problem many people see with digital content is that they cannot evaluate or sample the content before they pay for it. If it is unsatisfactory, they cannot return it.

    Also, another problem is that once DRM is in place, the product can no longer be called stand-alone (or not a real product for all practical purposes because it cannot be fully consumed).

    There needs to be some kind of very different solution on the part of governement to this problem because unlike for patents, no such *fair* system exists for digital content.

    Only one thing can be surely stated though;
    a digital product that is not stand-alone is not a product worth downloading or buying for any consumer.

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