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
    A Jabberwocky Named Dennis, 5 Mar 2007 @ 5:53pm

    It is quite amazing that people can actually agree with monopolization in this age. As someone said early most artists don't really care if people download their music providing that the downloader visit concerts, buy merchandise, or buy the music itself.

    I have been downloading for probably a year, and everytime I've ever downloaded a movie or song I've heard/seen it once and then deleted it. If I enjoyed it I go out and buy it. Downloading for me is more about awareness really. In a forum or Blog no one can put a link to a physical DVD or CD for people to know why they're ranting. But a torrent file is simple to use.

    Another problem the MPAA is is having but seems to downplay is both Netflix and TiVo. Netflix movies get shipped to people and a good 80% or more people I know who use it rip the image of the DVD and send the DVD back. TiVo'ing movies takes absolutely no effort at all and you can have the file all wrapped up. But why isn't the MPAA attacking them? Because Netflix and TiVo have legal teams to fight back, whereas a defenseless 13 year old girl who downloaded Gwen Stephani is a great target.

    When will the recoarding and movie industres learn you can't fight progress? They are like the Ottoman janissaries attempting to hold on to outdated canons in order to keep their social status. If they gave up their rigid stance the MPAA and RIAA may gain supporters for anti-Piracy, but their power-hungry attitude makes them appear to be more like a bully demanding lunch money than a multi-Billion dollar corporation.

    The analogy is still correct, for you nay-sayers who say "Well, they aren't stopping original material, just stolen works..." because the MPAA and RIAA refuse to allow anyone to use even CLIPS from their song/movies without prior permission. This includes education purposes.

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