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
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Apr 2012 @ 5:04pm

    " I find it rather ironic that you believe "all theorized systems...will always eventually fall for the same reasons," yet you assert that capitalism is better without any justification whatsoever. "

    Please quote me the line in my post that asserts capitalism is 'better'. Besides, I don't think 'irony' means what you think it means.

    You on the other hand ...

    "" I think people are capable of great good as well. It's merely a matter of which philosophy drives their thinking. The modern "capitalist" philosophy drowns any natural inclination towards altruism with heavy doses of narcissism--distilling vices such as selfishness and greed, then bottling it as a 'virtue'. "

    ........... began with the assertion that the 'Capitalist Philosophy' is the root of the problem. My assertion is that NO philosophy or system ( however way you wish to mince terms around ) has a chance at success while human greed continues to be the driving force for the majority of humanity as a whole, regardless of 'system' or 'philosophy. You seem to assert that 'Capitalist Philosophy' creates or encourages greed, where I assert that the greedy that already exist corrupt the system itself, and will do so no matter what system/philosophy is employed.

    "Just because of all of the current ones in use have failed doesn't mean all options have been tried and that no better system exist."

    And as long as people continue to behave as they do, no system will succeed. Which is my sole assertion.

    " Nice how you said nothing that actually rebutted what I said, choosing instead to attack what you think I said. "

    What I think you said is this ...

    " I think people are capable of great good as well. It's merely a matter of which philosophy drives their thinking. The modern "capitalist" philosophy drowns any natural inclination towards altruism with heavy doses of narcissism--distilling vices such as selfishness and greed, then bottling it as a 'virtue'. "

    Exactly as you said.
    It's not my fault that it sounds a lot like the old 'Capitalists are the root of all evil' shtick, which ignores the fact of humans as a whole being the underlying fault in ANY system or Philosophy.

    Looked like a duck, sounded like a duck. swam like a duck, it was most likely to be a duck.

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