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, 16 Jan 2007 @ 9:15pm

    Re: Re:

    Mike,

    I'm not ignoring any comments. I've been trying to save some to answer for later - the ones that will take more time to deal with, because I'm dealing wih a hard Friday deadline and working literally around the clock to finish this project.

    I don't care what the Supreme Court says - this is the same body that basically crossed "public use" out of the Constitution and replaced it with "perceived public benefit" with Kelo. And on and on and on.

    You can split hairs all you want - illegally making a copy of a movie is stealing intellectual property. This is common sense. No physical copy is taken, but the thing doesn't exist physically, does it? It's information in a digital realm, but no less somebody's work and property.

    Just as it's wrong to plagiarize somebody's work, it is wrong to steal entertainment as well. Neither of these things is taking anything physical from the other person - but that's a pretty standard.

    I can't swipe John Grisham's latest manuscript and call it my own, and I shouldn't be able to swipe James Camerons new movie and consume it for my enjoyment without paying.

    Films are intellectual property, made to be consumed by willing customers. If the customers aren't willing to pay, nobody is forcing them to consume the product. This isn't difficult to get.

    And your solutions are not very compelling, either. You're basically telling filmmakers to adopt the business model of the guy on the street playing a harmonica, with a hat sitting in front of him that you can throw money into. Basically begging.

    The big difference, of course, is that playing the harmonica costs this guy next to nothing, whereas the average film costs $65 million to make. That's hardly the kind of money anybody is going to be willing to put up if they only way you can make it back is from the charity of strangers throwing money into your hat.

    And it's no secret that the street corner guy gets 90% of his money out of people feeling sorry for him - not because they so dug his performance that they just felt compelled to pay for it. How many people are going to have that charitable attitude toward what they see as "Big Hollywood"?

    The idea that it's wrong to expect people to fairly pay for a film if they want to view it is just mind-boggling to me.

    We are perfectly willing to engage in these new distrubtion methods - the downloading of films for money, etc. And we're willing to look at new business models.

    But the very first thing that has to be agreed on by everybody, before we're willing to do any of this, is this:

    "Piracy is ALWAYS wrong. Just because you can download a movie without paying for it doesn't mean it is now you're right. Taking something without paying for it is wrong."

    If we can agree on this, then we can get somewhere. Unfortunately, I seem to be hearing a lot of apologetics for the outright theft of intellectual property. You can see why we would be hostile to such attitudes, can't you? People seem to be saying it's okay if others steal our work without paying for it, and that because it's technically possible it then becomes their "right" to do so. This is ridiculous.

    Then others come on here and say that films should cost less. No doubt. I know a little something about that. I launched my career on an ultra-low budget feature film.

    But those kinds of films are pretty much one-shot affairs - especially if you want to do them well. Not only would I not want to go through shooting a movie that way again, which was nearly killing myself doing so, but you can't ask people to work for free and volunteer free stuff for your production forever. That's how these things get made so cheaply - calling in favors, getting volunteers, and busting your ass so hard you think you're gonna drop dead. But all of this is done with the expectation that after you go through this experience, you'll then get the rewards of having access to more funds on subsequent films.

    So you can pay all those people that helped you out back by using them again - giving them good-paying work. And you justify your own insane investment by reaping some benefits from working with larger budgets in the future.

    Nobody will be able to sustain a business model making films under $1 million for very long. And without the possibility of something better on the next one, very few are going to put themselves through what I did just to make a film. Like any endeavor, you do it because of the rewards that could come later if you succeed.

    Technology will make budgets go down. So will the cutting of actor's salaries. But despite all of this movies will still cost millions to make in the future.

    And nobody is going to invest millions in an industry that is essentially the same thing as the guy with the harmonica begging on the street corner.

    And all because some punks on the internet think it's a-okay to consume a film without compensating the producers for their work.

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