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
    David, 15 Jan 2007 @ 10:01pm

    I am also a content producer. Of motion pictures. And online piracy has the potential to completely devastate my industry. Making a movie takes about two years from concept to completion. It takes hundreds of people working on it. And it takes literally millions of dollars to pull it off(well).

    This is a different animal from music. Nowadays, you can make a good track of music on home equipment for less than $10,000. You have to make a lot less to make it worthwhile as a business venture.

    Take away the profit motive from movies and they're just done. What investor in his right mind is going to pony up millions of dollars and two years of his life to make something that some punk will then just rip off "because they can"?

    If people adopt the idea that just because they have the technical ability to download a movie without paying for it - that it's somehow their "right", then there just won't be any more movies. Period. At least not of the kind that anybody's going to actually want to watch.

    This has already happened in Hong Kong, where VCD piracy(a form much less threatening than the internet for a variety of reasons) has decimated an industry that was once one of the most creative and vibrant in the world.

    Twenty years ago Hong Kong was making about 350 movies per year, many of which were the creative envy of the entire filmmaking world. Last year, Hong Kong made 60 films - and I don't think a single one of them was worth watching - there's just no money there anymore, because nobody wants to put in a bunch of cash to get ripped off buy a kid buying his movie on the cheap at a stall in some arcade.

    I'm not asking for draconian measures or unfair business practices. I welcome actual competition! But outright theft of intellectual property is NOT the same thing as competition. Stopping somebody from downloading a copyrighted work should be recognized as the act of "the good guys" - they're trying to stop stealing after all, right?

    I just don't see unfairness in trying to make sure people don't steal these products.

    Once again - the button-maker comparison doesn't work at all. Nobody is trying to stop people from using new technology to make competing films or music. All they're trying to do is stop them from stealing the films and music that other people have already made.

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