The impact of copyright regulation on economic development in general and innovation in particular is not the primary topic discussed in this blog, even though it is the issue that feeds most of the current conflicts about copyright regulation. In last week’s issue, the German magazine “Der Spiegel” published a feature entitled “Explosion of Knowledge” (German article). The article is more or less a synopsis of the comprehensive, two-volume and over 860 pages strong “Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts” (“History and Essence of Copyright”) by Eckhard Höffner, historian based in Munich. Why does a general interest magazine like “Der Spiegel” feature a book on copyright in 19th century Germany? Obviously, the reason are implications for ongoing debates on copyright legislation and its impact on economic development, or, as stated in the article’s subheadline:

Has Germany’s industrial rise in the 19th century happened because the country did not have copyright?

Following Höffner, Wolfgang Menzel’s famous dictum of Germany as a nation of “poets and thinkers” (“Dichter und Denker“) did not so much refer to prominent German writers such as Goethe or Schiller, but rather to Germany as a whole. Compared to England, where the Statute of Anne had introduced the first “modern” copyright in 1710, 19th century Germany produced more books, written by more authors, distributed to more readers. In 1843 over 14.000 different titles – a majority being non-fiction books – were printed in Germany compared to only about 1.000 titles printed in England. The main reason, according to Höffner, was weak copyright enforcement due to Germany’s small-statism.

While English publishers exploited their monopoly rights by selling highly priced books to small circles of wealthy readers, German publishers tried to increase profits by disseminating their works as widely and cheaply as possible, thereby always being threatened by pirated editions. For Höffner, this “explosion of knowledge”, meaning a much broader availability of specialist or technical literature, was responsible for Germany’s industrial catching-up in the 19th century, as described in the Spiegel-article:

Trading specialist literature was so successful that publishers always trembled for fresh supply. This situation empowered even the not-so-gifted among scientific authors vis-a-vis the publishers.  Several professors earned some extra income with guidebooks and info-brochures. “The founding generation has then developed out of this agile scientific discourse,” says Höffner. These times bred industrial magnates such as Alfred Krupp and Werner von Siemens later on. (translation L.D.)

Ironically, Höffner’s book is priced 68 Euros per volume – probably way too much for a broader, also non-academic audience of interested readers.