Ramblings

by Mike Masnick




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 @ 10:01pm

    Context

    A further elaboration:

    While it may be literally accurate to say that the RIAA, etc., aren't exactly like the 17th century button makers, they have far more in common than they have in difference.

    While the *AA aren't *explicitly* shooting for suppression of competition, they are clearly doing so implicitly.

    In both cases, the plaintiffs are seeking government intervention to prevent legitimate competition and aid in the protection of their current business method.

    In both cases, they seek intervention or legislation to suppress activities that are legal (in the case of the button manufacturers, actual competition, in the case of the *AA, fair use activities such as space and time shifting, etc.).

    And so on.

    As I've stated before, if the *AA's restricted their activities to those offenses that are clearly infringement, I would have no issue with them. But when the try to tell me that it is illegal to copy my legally purchased DVD to a portable player for my convenience (space shifting), then I am not obligated, in any reasonable fashion, to pay attention to them.

    They don't merely want legal recompense for actual infringement (I support that), they want to roll back fair use and first sale. They UTTERLY OPPOSE any freedom of action on the part of their customers who have legitimately acquired copies of content.

    Any group that can, with a straight face, claim that ' the VCR is to the movie industry as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone' is seriously demented, and completely out of touch with reality.

    That's why I (as a content producer) despise them. They have no concern for my interests in protecting my property, they're only interested in how many times they can suck payment from their customers for the same thing, over and over again.

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