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

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Noregreb, 18 Jan 2007 @ 10:34am

    "Theft," tactics, and misrepresentation

    A couple points I'd like to make.

    First, characterizing this as theft. If I download for free a copy of your song or movie, I haven't stolen from you any more than you have stolen my money by making a photocopy of it. The only thing I can arguably have taken from you is your right to deprive me of it unless I allow you to extort money from me for it.

    To this day, I'm nonplussed by the reaction and tactics of the MAFIAA who, when the Napster boom began in the 90's began enjoying record-setting sales, I believe due to the worldwide enhanced (and free to the record companies) exposure of their for-sale material to audiences ignorant of its existence. In clamping down on -- and ultimately wiping out -- Napster, they bit the gift horse that fed them, eliminating their free advertising and angering and alienating their customer base. And then they complain about the sharp drop in sales....

    I would have a lot more compassion for the weeping recording and movie companies if their products were always competitively and commensurate-with-value priced -- full current price-fixed retail for 50-year-old royalty-free content is ridiculous -- and if the producer/seller were actually responsible for the quality of the content. Lock up the content so that it must be purchased to review, hire some shill to quote on the packaging saying "this is great!", and when I get home to find one marginally good song on a $20 CD or what inevitably would be found on a $40 DVD of Battlefield Earth, how could anyone argue that I haven't been defrauded? Imagine the laughter at my local music store or video store if I go back there wanting a refund because my purchase turned out to be a piece of creative crap.

    So, in part, I look upon my ability to download a song or a movie as a necessary step to avoid giving money in exchange for something I would, after full examination that they actively refuse prior to purchase, regard as worthless, only because they managed to trick me into it. If I download a movie that I really like, I go buy the DVD when it's available (I'm not even going to comment on the works that are unavailable because the holder strategically refuses to release it -- Disney?). I would do the same with CD's except for the fact that RIAA's actions all the way back to Napster have offended me so much, I feel it's my duty to deprive them of all of my money, even if it means I'll hear no music because of it.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.