I had known that copyright killed music in Britain in the 18th and 19th century and that the absence of copyright laws in Germany had encouraged its remarkable artistic culture. I had not known that the same is true of books generally. But this article details remarkable new research showing that this was indeed the case. The author of the research in question is Eckhard Höffner and his book is Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts – not available yet in English.
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.