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, 16 Jan 2007 @ 9:38pm

    Buttons

    There may not be a literal relationship between the button manufacturers and the *AA groups, but there is still a good portion of commonality in viewpoint.

    First and foremost is the idea that it is appropriate to run to a governing body to protect a current business method.

    While I agree, in principle, that it is acceptable to seek measures to deal with copyright infringement (not theft, they are clearly not the same thing), there is still the viewpoint of the *AA members that they are entitled to more than copyright protection, they also believe that they are entitled to the protection of their profit method, regardless of the realities on the ground.

    While you are syntactically correct in your assertion that the *AA aren't explicitly arguing that they should repress competing distribution methods, it is clear, from their actions, that they do believe that they are entitled to protection from those competing distribution methods.

    DRM, as one example, does not address copyright infringement, it attempts to address distribution (and it fails miserably at that task).

    They are opposed to alternative distribution methods. They're aware enough that they cannot actually say that that is what they oppose, but the efforts they go through are not substantively different, in principle, from the button makers referenced in this context.

    As for your argument about looking for stolen items, I'll accept that, once the *AA groups actually use the appropriate standards of reasonable suspicion and probable cause that the police are bound by. Instead of 'john doe' warrants, and non-independent 'experts', if they actually show reasonable cause, and tie that cause to a specific suspect, and get a legitimate (signed by a judge) search warrant, then I'll agree that they're operating within the same framework as legitimate law enforcement. Here's a hint for you: Right now, they rarely do that. And they are far more likely to go after a user, instead of a distributor, even though the distributor is clearly the more egregious offender.

    I am, in no manner, an apologist for those who violate copyright, but the actions of the MAFIAA do far more harm than good, in the realm of copyright. What they do is the ethical equivalent of trying to kill someone who is stealing a loaf of bread. They need to quit overreacting, they need to start treating their customers like customers, instead of thieves, and they need to start accepting that they are now buggy whip makers in the era of the automobile. They are, by far, their own worst enemy.

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