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

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Ed C., 2 Apr 2012 @ 10:22am


    "I think the parallels to the RIAA and the MPAA are pretty self-evident. Freaking out about others entering the market? Check."

    When you are competing against the illegal distribution of your own property, I don't think that is called "freaking out", its called demanding enforcement action.

    You seem to be really confused. This has very little to do with the reproduction and distribution of works owned by the legacy publishers. The real issue is the reproduction and distribution of works NOT owned by the legacy publishers. These "guilded" publishers keep trying to subdue or destroy any competing means of publication that could be used by unsigned talent. They fear that if the talent were to wake up and realize that they are no longer the only means of publication, and that their own is incredibly inefficient and self-serving, no one would sell works to them anymore.

    "Running to the government and demanding protections? Check. "

    You mean demanding the government ENFORCE EXISTING LAWS?

    If it was really about "enforcing existing laws", than NO new laws would need to be passed to achieve that. It would merely be a matter of exercising their existing rights in court. But no, it's really about enforcing what they want the law to say, not what it actually says. They have continually expanded their rights through legislation which they primarily wrote for themselves, expanding "infringement" by making previously legal acts illegal. They then use this "expanding" infringement as an excuse to demand more laws that will give them even more rights to make even more actions illegal.

    "Expecting others to get permission to innovate? Check."

    Taking something that someone else owns the rights to and then distributing it without their permission is clearly a violation of existing copyright law even before Napster was created.

    This is wrong on many counts. First, there are many uses that do not require permission from the copyright owner. The publishers, however, keep pretending that the law says the rights of others do not exist, and then keep trying to pass legislation to abolish these rights. Of course, even a fool could see that there would be absolutely no need for the new laws if the law already says the publishers insist that it says.

    Second, the publishers keep insisting that everyone needs to get permission from them to even create a device or service that can be used with their copyrighted works. They demanded that DVD and BluRay fit their needs above all others and that no devices could be made to use these without going through them first. They constantly demanded that even devices and services for private use had to be crippled or abolished because it didn't get permission from them!

    "Able to get government-sanctioned fines levied on those new players? Check."

    These "new players" were BREAKING EXISTING LAWS.

    Aside from the fact that many of those "existing laws" were primarily written by the publishers solely for their own benefit, even services and businesses that have absolutely nothing to do with them STILL HAVE TO PAY THEM! For instance, restaurants and internet radio stations have to pay fees through industry collections agencies even when they can prove that not a single song by artist covered by them was played. In some countries, EVERYONE has to pay media fees without any proof that even a single bit from their works was used.

    None of this has to do with BREAKING EXISTING LAWS. It's about using the increasingly unbalanced nature of copyright law as a tool to extort money and control. The penalties for infringement are high, while the penalties for false accusations are low and rarely enforced--exactly the way publishers intended.

    "Feeling totally entitled to violate the property rights of others to "find" evidence of "subversive goods"? Check."


    You haven't really been paying attention, have you. For instance, the MPAA on more than one occasion had police raid and confiscate DVDs from manufacturers that their members had paid to make those disk!

    It doesn't stop there, these guilded publishers want the ability to check every internet "tube", every connected server and private computer, to "find evidence of subversive goods" without the need of any prior evidence. Accusations based solely on their own paranoid suspicion is enough. You know, just in case... Yet again, they insist that new laws need to be passed to give them the rights to do so, because the existing laws under copyright already give them these rights.

    And you have nothing to fear if you do nothing wrong. It's not as if their haphazard means for enforcement could ever harm law bidding citizens, be used to extort innocents by mere accusations of infringement because they can't afford to fight back in court, or even be subverted by a third parties--such as hackers and governments--for their own nefarious means. Except, they have, and will continue to do so, simply because the publishers have no concern about the ramifications of their actions on others.

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
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
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.