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
    Homer, 15 Jan 2007 @ 9:25pm

    RE: Not getting the comparison...

    Well, David,

    Here's the problem with your argument. I *am* a producer of unique and copyrighted information, and I am thoroughly opposed to the position of the MAFIAA (thanks for the insightful description, misanthropic humanist :o)).

    The MAFIAA are not really opposing piracy (more accurately, copyright violation). They aren't concerned with the wholesale distribution of the intellectual property of their 'members' (if they were, they would spend their time and effort pursuing those who are actually distributing *for profit* copies of movies and music, etc. *as a business*), instead of wasting their time suing individuals. What the MAFIAA want is *control*. They want you to pay, frequently, and expensively, for the *right* to use what you have already purchased. They are TERRIFIED of the idea that they are not needed, as middlemen, in the transfer of concept from creator to consumer.

    The MAFIAA produce no content, they create no new music, they create no new movies. They do NOTHING other than suck the life from those who create, at the cost of those who consume. Just like any 'protection racket', they want their 'cut', though they have not actually earned it.

    They are sucking at the teat of the state, buying elected officials, greasing the wheels, because they live in fear that the actual producers of content can live without them. Electronic distribution is NOT a threat to copyright, it is a threat to the middleman, who takes a cut without providing a *real* service.

    Why do you think that the *vast* majority of the artists (whom the MAFIAA claim to represent) oppose the heavy handed tactics used by the cartel? They know, instinctively or otherwise, that the MAFIAA only make the actual producers of content look bad by association.

    Those of us who create content *do* want to be compensated, but even more than that, we want to be *heard*. Besides, the existence of the MAFIAA does not correlate to our being compensated, they expend a fantastic amount of effort to make sure that they compensate the actual artist as little as possible.

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