How The RIAA & MPAA Are Like The Anti-Innovation German Weavers' Guild Of The 16th Century

from the protectionism,-not-innovation dept

Five years ago, we wrote a post comparing the RIAA (and the MPAA) to 17th century French buttonmakers, who used their guild to go absolutely crazy in blocking a horrifying new innovation: cloth buttons, which could be made by weavers, without making use of the members of the buttonmakers guilt. The story came from Robert L. Heilbroner's book The Worldly Philosophers (an all around excellent book if you want to learn some of the basics of the history of economics).
"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."
I think the parallels to the RIAA and the MPAA are pretty self-evident. Freaking out about others entering the market? Check. Running to the government and demanding protections? Check. Expecting others to get permission to innovate? Check. Able to get government-sanctioned fines levied on those new players? Check. Feeling totally entitled to violate the property rights of others to "find" evidence of "subversive goods"? Check.

It seems this comparison between the RIAA/MPAA and protectionist, anti-innovation guilds of that era has occurred to others as well. In a recent episode of the Planet Money podcast, host Adam Davidson does a "deep dive" into the economics of a 16th century German weavers' guild and discovers the same patterns. Collusion in the guild to keep out innovation, to artificially limit the market, to keep wages of employees down and, most importantly, the first response to any competitive threat is to run to the government and lobby for greater protections.

The comparison to the RIAA and MPAA is so obvious that Adam Davidson calls it out pretty early on in the discussion, noting that these "guilds" don't seem all that different from those two groups today. Of course, given that they're both built on copyright law, which originally was designed as a protectionist tool for a similar publishers guild, perhaps the similarities aren't too surprising.

Filed Under: guilds, history, lobbying, protectionism
Companies: mpaa, riaa


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  1. identicon
    By Timmy, 2 Apr 2012 @ 9:12am

    WE ARE THE MAFIAA. YOUR SOUNDS ARE BELONGING TO US PAY THE GOLD-PRESSED LATINUM NOW OR DIE!

    We must diligently police people's homes, businesses and automobile conveyances to ensure that no infringement occurs.

    Tsk, tsk - not enough. We must ALSO police people's minds and the future in general, and such policing must be extended throughout the universe.

    I'd hate to learn later that 3 humanoids on the 9th planet of the Wooba Dooba System in Galaxy 138427629844938625o7590750237057IUOIUU0[UYTYRXHKE-Delta were trading "Stairway to Heaven" and "I Think I Love You" without paying the shekels in royalties to the appropriate (by then) ugmafiaa (universal galactic mafiaa) and associated criminal conspiracies.

    Here's what I don't get: does even one of these mafiaa bastards believe that their anti-societal and anti-progress behavior will make them richer (their sole concern) in the future rather than piss off the entire world and lead the mafiaa members' demise? The masses seem (rightly) to hate these slimy sob's more every day. I do.

    For most of my considerable adult life, I was on their side. But over the last 10-15 years, due to THEIR behavior, I've grown to loathe them, their endless whining, manipulation and worse, and I now cannot wait for the old mafiaa fossils to drop dead.

    The future is here now and by refusing to adapt (despite many, many years of opportunity) and instead becoming miserable fucking terrorists the mafiaa has consigned themselves and the governments they own to the cut-out bin of history.

    Good riddance.

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