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. icon
    Mockingbird (profile), 2 Apr 2012 @ 5:01pm

    suit-to-mill (secta ad molendinum)

    Another legal institution that may aptly be compared to copyright is the old feudal privilege of suit-to-mill. Something I wrote about this 10 years ago seems still to be on point:
    Human institutions tend to perpetuate themselves at others' expense, and even at the expense of the purposes for which they were originally set up. A possible asymptotic condition resulting from this process can be seen in the grievances of the Senechaussee of Rennes, who in 1789 petitioned the Estates General praying for
    Supression de la servitude plus meurtrière du droit de suite de mouline...usage libre des meules à bras; proscription absolue de la capitation seigneuriale à raison de ces tristes machines; et que la postérité ignore, s'il se peut, que la tyrannie féodale bretonne, armée du pouvoir judiciare, n'a pas rougi, dans ces derniers temps, de briser les meules à bras, et de vendre annuellement à des malheureaux la faculté de broyer entre deux pierres une mesure d'orge ou de sarrasin. (Translation: Suppression of the mankilling servitude of suit-to-mill, ... free use of querns; [and] absolute abolition of the royalty on these pathetic engines; that posterity may never know (if that is possible) that the tyrannical Breton lords, armed with the judicial power, did not blush in these modern times to smash querns, and to "sell" to the unfortunate folk annual "license" to grind a measure of barley or buckwheat between two stones.) M.J. Mavidal and M.E. Laurent, eds., Archives Parlementaires de 1787 a 1860, 1st Series, Vol. 5, Paul DuPont, Paris, 1879, p.547 (Article 171).
    What might originally have been a reasonable way of funding the construction of large mills had degenerated into a lords' right that reached even to one of the simplest of everyday activities. The peasants had to get a "license" even to crush grain. I little doubt the lords defended their "property right" in the milling monopoly with many fine words.

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