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Knowledge Explosion, in translation from der Spiegel

UPDATE 19/8/10: An official English version of this article has now been posted on the Der Spiegel website.

A little while back, the blog Against Monopoly linked to an article in der Spiegel that looked at the work of the economic historian Eckhard Höffner, who has proposed that the intellectual development in Germany in the 19th century was dramatically increased by the lack of copyright law in that country. It’s really interesting to me that this viewpoint, which might be considered a bit fringe or extreme in the US, is picked up and reported by the mainstream press, so I’ve translated it below. If anybody has corrections for my translation, please leave them in the comments.

Knowledge Explosion

Did Germany experience an industrial rise in the 19th century because the country had no copyright law? A Munich economic historian provides a look at this analysis.

The entire country found itself in a reading frenzy. Even booksellers were surprised by the sudden inclination to read. The Germans, noted the literary critic Wolfgang Menzel in 1836, were a “people of poets and thinkers.”

“That famously worded phrase was fundamentally misunderstood,” claims the economic historian Eckhard Höffner, 44. “He’s not describing the best writers, like Goethe or Schiller, but rather the fact that in Germany an incomparably large mass of reading material was produced.”

Höffner shed some light on the early flowering of print in this country and came to a surprising finding: unlike in neighboring England and France, in the 19th century Germany had an unprecedented explosion of knowledge.

German authors wrote their fingers to the bone. In 1843 alone some 14,000 new publications appeared – compared to the population size, that is near modern levels. Novels were printed, but scientific articles dominated. The situation was very different in England: “One sees in Great Britain, considering the time of the Englightement and bourgeois emancipation, a lamentable history,” states Höffner.

Indeed, at the time there were 1,000 new works produced in England per year – ten times fewer than in Germany. This was not without consequences: because of the chronically weak market of books, Höffner believes, England gambled away their lead as colonial power within a century, while the backwards agrarian state of Germany caught up and by 1900 rose to equal the industrial nations.

The cause of this development, according to Höffner, is even more astonishing. It was copyright, introduced the Brits in 1710, that in his view what caused the world of knowledge in the United Kingdom to become desolate.

In Germany, by contrast, authors’ rights were not considered for a long time. Prussia introduced a copyright law in 1837, but because of the particular political situation at the time (Kleinstaaterei), the law was initially impossible to enforce.

Höffner’s is the first scientific work to examine a direct comparison of the impact of copyright law in two countries over a such a long period of time. His findings are cause for excitement in his field; up until now, copyright law has been considered a great achievement and a guarantee of a thriving book market. Authors are only encouraged to write, so goes the doctrine, if they know their rights will be respected.

But at least the historical comparison arrives at a different result. In England, publishers brazenly exploited their monopoly position. New works appeared in small runs of no more than 750 copies and at a price that often exceeded the weekly wage of a skilled laborer. Even so, the most prominent publishers in London still made extravagant profits and drove around in gilded carriages. Their customers were rich and noble, and the books were considered pure luxury goods. In the few libraries that existed, the precious tomes were chained to the shelves to protect against thieves.

In Germany, however, the plagiarists were breathing down the publisher’s necks, and every new publication was reprinted without fear and sold cheap. Successful publishers reacted with ingenuity and developed a form of publication that’s still common today: they made fine editions for the wealthy and cheap paperbacks for the masses. The result was a completely different book market than in England. Bestsellers and scientific works were brought to the people in large numbers and at dirt cheap prices.

“So many thousands of people in the most hidden corners of Germany, who might have thought of buying books as impossible because of the dear price, have gradually put together a small library of reprints,” noted the historian Heinrich Bensen.

The prospect of a wide audience particularly motivated scientists to spread their research findings. “A completely new form of teaching emerged,” says Höffner.

Outside of the oral tradition of teachers and scholars at universities, at that time there was hardly a way to disseminate new knowledge. Now there circulated through the country a large number of sophisticated treatises.

So it was reported in the “Literature Journal” (Literatur-Blatt) in 1826: “The largest volume of writings address natural objects of all kinds, and especially the practical application of natural history in medicine, industry, agriculture, & c.”

In Germany, scholars wrote endlessly, tracts and guides dealing with chemistry, mechanics, mechanical engineering, optics, and steel production. In Great Britain, meanwhile, an elite circle indulged a classical educational cannon, which turned more to fiction, philosophy, theology, languages, and history.

Practical guidance, like was printed en masse in Germany, on topics such as dam construction or grain cultivation, were largely absent. “In Great Britain, the spread of this useful modern knowledge was dependent on Medieval methods of hearsay,” writes Höffner.

The German knowledge offensive led to a curious situation, that at that time hardly anyone would have noticed; for example, Sigismund Hermbstädt, a now long-forgotten Berlin professor of chemistry and pharmacology, earned more with his work “Principles of Leather Tannery” than the British author Mary Shelley did with her still famous horror story “Frankenstein.”

The sales of professional literature were so good that publishers were constantly worried about supply. This situation lent itself to the less gifted among the science writers, giving them a good position to negotiate with the publishers. Several professors earned an impressive addition to their salary with guides and informational brochures.

“Out of this lively scientific discourse, a founding generation was born,” said Höffner. That era produced industrialists like Alfred Krupp and Werner von Siemens.

The market for scientific literature broke up when in the 1840’s Germany gradually began asserting copyright. German publishers reacted to the situation similarly to their counterparts in England: they hiked up book prices and did away with the cheaper market.

The authors, now equipped with rights to their own work, responded with irritation. On October 28, 1854, Heinrich Heine wrote caustically to his publisher Julius Campe: “With the exorbitant price you set, I will have difficulties as soon as there’s a second copy of the book. You must, my dear Campe, set low rates, or else I really can’t see why I was so lenient with my material interests.”