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The constraining role of IP and Patents (2): case study on why Germany overtook England in the 19th century

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
8th September 2010


Did Germany experience rapid industrial expansion in the 19th century due to an absence of copyright law? A German historian argues that the massive proliferation of books, and thus knowledge, laid the foundation for the country’s industrial might.

Der Spiegel discusses a book by Eckhard Höffner that shows that a key reason for Germany’s rapid industrial and scientific development in the 19th century was it’s lack of copyright, while at the same time the Copyright law in England hampered the publishing industry and innovation.

Excerpted from a review of Eckhard Höffner by Frank Thadeusz:

“Höffner has researched that early heyday of printed material in Germany and reached a surprising conclusion — unlike neighboring England and France, Germany experienced an unparalleled explosion of knowledge in the 19th century.

German authors during this period wrote ceaselessly. Around 14,000 new publications appeared in a single year in 1843. Measured against population numbers at the time, this reaches nearly today’s level. And although novels were published as well, the majority of the works were academic papers.

The situation in England was very different. “For the period of the Enlightenment and bourgeois emancipation, we see deplorable progress in Great Britain,” Höffner states.

Indeed, only 1,000 new works appeared annually in England at that time — 10 times fewer than in Germany — and this was not without consequences. Höffner believes it was the chronically weak book market that caused England, the colonial power, to fritter away its head start within the span of a century, while the underdeveloped agrarian state of Germany caught up rapidly, becoming an equally developed industrial nation by 1900.

Even more startling is the factor Höffner believes caused this development — in his view, it was none other than copyright law, which was established early in Great Britain, in 1710, that crippled the world of knowledge in the United Kingdom.

Germany, on the other hand, didn’t bother with the concept of copyright for a long time. Prussia, then by far Germany’s biggest state, introduced a copyright law in 1837, but Germany’s continued division into small states meant that it was hardly possible to enforce the law throughout the empire.

Höffner’s diligent research is the first academic work to examine the effects of the copyright over a comparatively long period of time and based on a direct comparison between two countries, and his findings have caused a stir among academics. Until now, copyright was seen as a great achievement and a guarantee for a flourishing book market. Authors are only motivated to write, runs the conventional belief, if they know their rights will be protected.

Yet a historical comparison, at least, reaches a different conclusion. Publishers in England exploited their monopoly shamelessly. New discoveries were generally published in limited editions of at most 750 copies and sold at a price that often exceeded the weekly salary of an educated worker.

London’s most prominent publishers made very good money with this system, some driving around the city in gilt carriages. Their customers were the wealthy and the nobility, and their books regarded as pure luxury goods. In the few libraries that did exist, the valuable volumes were chained to the shelves to protect them from potential thieves.

In Germany during the same period, publishers had plagiarizers — who could reprint each new publication and sell it cheaply without fear of punishment — breathing down their necks. Successful publishers were the ones who took a sophisticated approach in reaction to these copycats and devised a form of publication still common today, issuing fancy editions for their wealthy customers and low-priced paperbacks for the masses.

This created a book market very different from the one found in England. Bestsellers and academic works were introduced to the German public in large numbers and at extremely low prices. “So many thousands of people in the most hidden corners of Germany, who could not have thought of buying books due to the expensive prices, have put together, little by little, a small library of reprints,” the historian Heinrich Bensen wrote enthusiastically at the time.

The prospect of a wide readership motivated scientists in particular to publish the results of their research. In Höffner’s analysis, “a completely new form of imparting knowledge established itself.”

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One Response to “The constraining role of IP and Patents (2): case study on why Germany overtook England in the 19th century”

  1. Derek Ryan Strong Says:

    One can essentially define wealth as knowledge, with its origin in evolutionary processes. This is the thesis of Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. Of course, intellectual property hinders the free sharing and proliferation of knowledge and thus reduces wealth.

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