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
    Kurmudge, 16 Jan 2007 @ 8:20am

    Extremes on both sides

    Everyone is talking past each other here. The issue is not whether or not someone should pay to buy the item in the first place- of course they should, and piracy of some degree has been around forever. The issue is whether or not the distributor can use the government to permit him to collect over and over from the same person who already paid, for the same thing, and also prevent a lawful owner from doing what he wants with what he paid for- for his personal use. If I buy a CD, I want to be able to play it at home, in the car, or on my mp3 player (not iPod; they try to control everything). I also want to be able to back it up in case the dog chews it. No one else is getting it or avoiding paying for it.

    For example, I bought an e-book. I learned after I got it that the pdf file was locked to prevent me from printing out any pages (it was impossible to read and refer as needed to the end notes without printing the end notes out), and I was also not able to open the file again when I upgraded to a new computer, all because the publisher was trying to prevent people from reasonable fair use. I finally went to Amazon and bought a used copy of the same book; used to make sure that the publisher would definitely not get any of my money again (not illegal yet, but wait till the book publishers get the DMCA and similar rules applied to hard copies). If I ever need to read something from that publisher again, you bet I won't buy it new; if necessary, I'll go to the library, borrow it, and scan the sections I need.

    There is a happy medium between the piracy free-for-all and the DMCA "we own your copy of the content, we just license you to listen to it 3 times in one format" dream. My daughter just moved to the UK, and is having a problem being able to play DVDs she bought legally. Bunk.

    Creative marketers will adapt and win, the luddites of publishing and music will die. Some stuff filmmakers might want to do won't get done because it isn't economical. That has always been the case. There are medical treatments that don't get developed either. In the 16th century, patrons such as the de Medicis took care of such things.

    But no one has a right to steal someone's work, nor does the creator have a right to put it out there and exercise permanent control of it in an unlimited fashion. There is a middle way, and we'll get there eventually, unless the influence peddlers in the "entertainment business" buy off Washington.

    And, David, no one owes you the chance to have the job you dream of. I want to be the boss of my favorite football team, but the competition is too stiff with too few opportunities. Those with talent and drive will continue to make the fillum pieces that they want to, the rest will go flip burgers. Nothing new.

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