Germany's rise to industrial power: due to lack of copyright?

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:

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 thesis is certainly going to stir up some debate. From the Spiegel article, there appear to be at least some inconsistencies:
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?
Germany's rise to industrial power: due to lack of copyright? Germany's rise to industrial power: due to lack of copyright? Reviewed by Mark Schweizer on Friday, August 20, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. Personally, I'd put it down to other factors, basically the rise of technological society and Germany's enthusiastic embrace of it, as opposed to England's rather more lukewarm one.

    Much of this was related to the societies themselves. In England, the proper study for a gentleman was the classics; had the word "technology" existed at the time, it would have been a dirty one, and not one with which the upper classes (who were the Government at the time - ordinary folk only became Parliamentarians with the rise of the Labour Party) would have soiled their hands.

    In my own field, chemistry, in the whole of the 19th century, there is but one "name" reaction which is not German - the Perkin synthesis (which gave us the first synthetic dye). All the others, starting with the Wöhler synthesis, were German. That chenmical industry kept Germany in the First World War - Heinz Haber's nitrogen fixation process aöllowed the manufacture of both fertiliser and explosives when the supply of Chile saltpeter was cut off by the Royal Navy. (It also made possible "ersatz" coffee, which most Germans would like to forget - no wonder Wilhelm II's first request in Dutch exile was "a cup of good, strong English tea")

    In engineering, the Krupp invention of cast steel produced the devastating artillery which destroyed the French in the Franco-Prussian War and gave rise to German Unification under the Kaisers. The higher degree we know as PhD came from Germany.

    A long-winded way of saying that I don't think it was due to ciopyright or the lack thereof!

  2. It sounds like Hoffner has been reading William St Clair's "The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period" (2004) for his position on the UK - a fascinating read but not necessarily accepted by everybody! The most recent book I know on this in English is Richard Sher's "The Enlightenment and the Book" (2007), where he is at some pains to deny St Clair's argument that copyright was of any particular significance at all. The interesting thing about all this literature so far as I have got in it is that you don't see anybody arguing that copyright was crucial to any economic development whatsoever.

  3. I'm not sure the Spiegel article does give rise to any inconsistencies in its comparison of Herbstadt and Shelley - the key paragraph is at the start of that section:

    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.

    In other words, Herbstadtmade could make very large sums from many small payments for low priced copies for the masses.

    It's certainly an intriguing thesis; hopefully there's to be an English edition of his book.

  4. Curiously, I have been unable to locate the expected free, on-line copy of the text of Herr Höffner's book. Instead, it seems to cost 68 Euros from The phrase "practice what you preach" springs to mind.

  5. I'm fully with teemacs on this one. Indeed I am afraid that Britain still suffers from a hangover of resistance to the scientific disciplines (Charles Windsor's diatribes on genetically modified food are a case in point and do nothing to foster an informed debate). Where the Germans build cars, electrical goods, hi tech engineering and so on - our biggest industry in the UK is banking....ouch!

    I see how scientists and engineers are treated in the UK - short term contracts with lousy pay and no job security. Faced with these odds, our best and brightest scientists leave the UK or move sideways into other areas, like patenting for example. Who can blame them?

    There has been chronic underinvestment in technological development in Britain. The successes are few and far between (the Lotus company or Dyson being rare examples of success stories). That said, it is less about money and more about a change of attitude. In 1945 the British government patted Alan Turing on the head and thanked him for his efforts and, completely failing to comprehend the potential of the technology, invoked that bluntest of instruments, the Official Secrets Act, to forbid any further development of that technology in the UK. After this what would have been the British grandfather of all modern computers was dismantled and the innovations in this area were made for the most part in the US!

    I do not see the relevance of copyright. In particular, a greater quantity of available publications in a society does not imply a greater degree of innovation any more than a greater number of patents means that a particular company is worth more than any other. For both a company and an economy, what matters is the attitude towards technology and innovation.

  6. The key point is the last one in the online, English-language version of the article: That it was based on low prices of works, with Heinrich Heine lamenting that a publisher's high price would result in lower sales.

    A little thought experiment thoroughly undermines Höffner's thesis. The additional cost imposed by a copyright system is in enforceable compensation to the holder... and that compensation to authors has remained fairly constant for trade books since the early nineteenth century, at around one-eighth of list price. (Academic authors would love to get that much!) That is, on a £16 trade book, the amount eventually attributed to the author's compensation is slightly under £2. You can draw your own conclusions on whether the margins on nonreturnable books of the nineteenth century would have allowed price adjustments to allow for the author's share...

  7. One of the biggest problems I have with the ACTA treaty and it's ilk is that having worldwide unified laws removes the possibility of looking at different regimes and seeing what actually works best in practice.

  8. " Britain still suffers from a hangover of resistance to the scientific disciplines (Charles Windsor's diatribes on genetically modified food are a case in point "

    But leaving aside a couple of invented name changes a hundred or so years ago, Charles is either from the Saxe-Coburg royal family (on his mother's side) or the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg royal family (on his father's side).

    It seems no matter which way you look at it, any inherited anti-technology prejudice which Herr Windsor might have are entirely German in origin.

  9. Hoeffner gave a presentation at a Bournemouth University seminar I attended last year - very dubious statistics and an unconvincing argument. Perhaps the book is more persuasive. It is generally thought that the US publishing industry languished as a piracy haven until policy-makers realised the need to recognise foreign copyrights.

  10. @MTPT: yes, a lot of small payments make a large sum in the end. But if there was no copyright protection at all, why would anyone even pay a small payment to the author? The publisher who did would be at a competitive disadvantage, because every other publisher could sell copies of the same work without paying the author. It therefore seems that Germany had a different, rather than no, copyright system. It would be interesting to see why the German system encouraged mass publication while the British system encouraged "niche" publication.
    If copyright has anything to do with it at all - I share some of the doubts expressed by the comments.

  11. A few things have to be kept in mind: Germany was a number of independent states, with individual legislation until 1870.

    Despite the difficulty of policing the "import" of printed paper that might have been copyrighted in the import German state, a publisher like Bernhard Tauchnitz did negotiate many agreements with individual authors, at first in particular British authors, in order to publish a simultaneous German version. Actually, several versions in varying degrees of luxury. He basically invented the concept of "pocket book".

    As to the lack of British fingerprint on steelmaking: what about Henry Bessemer who invented steel refining? He also invented a very cost-saving method of making bronze powder, relying on a trade secret for 40 years for protection of his process. Even today's pharma industry cannot press the patent system into such service.

    There was a general awareness of technical development in the whole of Europe in the 19th century, and those who advanced science and technology were well versed in several languages; English, French, and German as a minimum. Knowledge was not just generated in Germany; where would we be without Fourier or Wheatstone? German industry did not really flourish until they made a unified patent system, essentially for the home market and using one language: German.

    Kind regards,

    George Brock-Nannestad

  12. @Mark: You're not considering the phasing.

    Payments are made by the original publisher to the author to obtain the text. That original publisher then adopts a business model under which he rapidly sells many copies, at a low price - generating the many small payments to the author.

    (This assume the author is being paid royalties, not a lump sum for first access!)

    The subsequent "imitating" publishers almost certainly do not make payments to the author, but there is a lead time for them to produce their copies, during which period the only source is the original publisher.

    I'd hazard the guess that the lead time was fairly significant - days or weeks - in the early nineteenth century.

    Consider the quasi-analogy of a modern day newspaper which carries an "exclusive". By tomorrow, every news outlet will carry the story, without paying the original source, but that 24 hour period is still a sufficient lead time: during that period the original newspaper is the only available source, and people buy it to obtain the information now, rather than wait until tomorrow.

    cf. the US doctrine of Hot News; the Telegraph's print timing during the expenses scandal, etc. etc.

    I call it a quasi-analogy because other factors - especially realtime news services via television and internet - undercut it, but these factors did not exist at the time being considered.


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