Buttons, Calico and Copyright

Copyright is not the first instance of government implementing draconian prohibition and disproportionate penalties to shield established industries from innovation. In centuries past, people have been searched, tortured, and killed over clothing manufacture and imports outside guild monopolies.

The invention of cloth buttons in 17th century France threatened the monopoly of the button-makers guild. In response, makers of cloth buttons were fined. But that was not enough. The guild “demanded the right to search people’s homes and wardrobes and even to arrest them on the streets if they are seen wearing these subversive goods1.”

Nor were these the most extreme measures taken. Importers of printed calico fabric were imprisoned, tortured, even hanged. Sixteen thousand people were killed.

In spite of the penalties, prohibition ultimately failed. But not before many lives had been ruined.


1 Examples from Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, 1961, pp. 17-18.