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
    misanthropic humanist, 11 Jan 2007 @ 1:57pm


    Keep on this Mike, it's a fascinating research topic. I hope you get a publisher to take a book of your own on it one day.

    Protectionism is an ancient common theme, the alchemists, the swordsmiths, the stonemasons, the brewers all have this in their history. The aims are always benign to start with, to protect (literally, in a good way) otherwise etherial knowledge that was only passed down word of mouth from generation to generation. Then it becomes the task of controlling it, to become gatekeepers of knowledge, and finally it becomes an offensive to stamp out rival knowledge. And it's cyclic, with hubris always before fall, often involving the destruction of the very knowledge the gatekeepers sought to preserve.

    History has shown one thing to be consistent. You can have paradigm shift or incremental progress, evolution or revolution. It really is either/or. If you block the flow of progress eventually it will come busting through depite all your efforts. Evolution and incremental progress are always more comfortable than revolutionary movement, and yet generation after generation there are those who will stand their armies before an irresistable force. Blocking irresistable forces causes more misery in the end than allowing them to roll gracefully by.

    I read a fascinating book (whos title escapes me for the moment) on
    strategic control of technologies, well before 9/11 and the "terrorism" hysteria. It brought up all these familiar arguments. That the common man was not responsible enough to have forbidden knowledge. That popularisation would debase high standards (of safety for example). That the means to innovate should be restricted.

    Before shaking your head in agreement, consider that this (rare and possibly classified text) was all about biotechnology and nuclear technolgies. Does that change anything with such a scary context? I argue that it does not, in a reality where box-cutters and public transport become the preffered tools of destruction.

    As a psychological observation I have one thing to say that fits perfectly into your picture of the "economics of abundance". What is the mindstate of the protectionist? Is it that he fears his means of income is threatened? Is it that he fears losing control over knowledge and the means of production will disempower him? Only a little, it is more subtle. The protectionist fears the end, the limit. His greatest fear is that "that's all there is", there is no better way, nothing more, nothing beyond. He fears he has reached the peak of achievement and can never do better, it is an intellectual mid-life crisis of a kind, and so begins the quest to build a wall around what he has.

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