The economic historian Eckhard Höffner proposes a controversial theory: Germany's rise (and Great Britain's relative decline) in industrial and technological innovation in the early 19th century was due to a lack of copyright in Germany prior to about 1840, and strong copyright protection in Great Britain since 1710. Copyright made publishers rich ("driving around the city in gilt carriages"), but meant that books were not affordable for the masses, while the cheap plagiarized copies in Germany led to the distribution of knowledge among all classes of society. From the Spiegel article on the book:
The thesis is certainly going to stir up some debate. From the Spiegel article, there appear to be at least some inconsistencies:
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.
The German proliferation of knowledge created a curious situation that hardly anyone is likely to have noticed at the time. Sigismund Hermbstädt, for example, a chemistry and pharmacy professor in Berlin, who has long since disappeared into the oblivion of history, earned more royalties for his "Principles of Leather Tanning" published in 1806 than British author Mary Shelley did for her horror novel "Frankenstein," which is still famous today.
This Kat wonders how Hermbstädt could earn substantial royalties absent copyright protection, but maybe he is missing the point. It appears clear that Germany had a very different publishing industry than Great Britain during that time, with a lot more technical/engineering type of books put out; but was lack of copyright really the reason for this?