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 @ 10:30pm

    So, Tell me

    How is the behaviour of the RIAA, etc., going to prevent the scenario you describe?

    My point isn't to argue that there's something wrong with copyright protection, etc.

    My point is that the actions of the MAFIAA (I like that acronym :o) ) ISN'T GOING TO HELP, *AT ALL*.

    If they were truly about actually protecting the rights of the artists, I would be 100% behind their efforts. But there is one simple fact behind this whole thing: THEY DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE ACTUAL PRODUCERS OF THE CONTENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The situation you describe for Hong Kong would have been better addressed by putting the resources into pursuing the distribution rings, instead of getting an aneurism about individuals.

    The button maker comparison is entirely accurate. The MAFIAA are opposed to any distribution method that bypasses them (e.g. makers of buttons).

    And apart from all of the above, the draconian measures supported by the MAFIAA concerning the actions of individuals (the DMCA, DRM, etc. ) simply DO NOT WORK at the stated task. They do not prevent piracy, they do not prevent illegal use of copyrighted material. They do nothing but inconvenience the honest customers. As a content producer, I choose NOT to believe that my customers are, by default, dishonest thieves, out to rob me blind by letting their friends watch or listen to my product.

    It is the default assumption of dishonesty that I have the biggest problem with. When you tell your customers that you have to inconvenience them for their own good, because they're criminals at heart, and they'll rob you blind if you don't treat them like thieves and liars, then you've already lost your battle.

    I'm all for getting compensated properly. I also believe that the vast majority of my customers are willing to compensate me, and I don't believe that treating them like shit is the way to make that happen.

    I'd rather put up with the handful of freeloaders, if the alternative is to tell my honest customers that I think they're scum, out to rob me blind at the first opportunity.

    My point isn't that I don't think there aren't good ways to address piracy. My point is that, so far, all of the ways presented by the MAFIAA, are, without a single exception, THE WRONG WAY!!!.

    When you assume, by default, that your customers are thieves, then that is exactly what they will act like. If, on the other hand, you treat them like people, most of them will do the right thing, and the rest can be accepted like collateral damage (and that kind of thing has been, and will always be with us).

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