Copyright: Germans win through sharing

Did a relaxed approach to copyright help Germany catch up to the British Empire?

Called by some a sellout to corporate interests and a surrender to Washington, Bill C-32—the federal government’s third attempt at bringing the Copyright Act into the Internet age—has its share of opponents. So, new peer-reviewed research by German economic historian Eckhard Höffner may find some eager Canadian students. A lawyer and author of several books, Höffner’s new two-volume work, Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts (his preferred English translation is The History and Nature of Copyright) contends that the German states’ 19th-century transformation from an agricultural backwater to an industrial power the equal of Britain was due in part to their relaxed attitude toward copyright and intellectual property (IP).

According to Höffner, 1843 saw the publication of some 14,000 new books in pre-unification Germany. By comparison, the United Kingdom saw just 1,000 new titles published that year. Of the German volumes, the majority weren’t novels or poetry; rather, Höffner’s research shows that German book fairs were a cornucopia of technical manuals, scientific treatises and academic works.

The key difference between German and U.K. publishing, says Höffner, was their copyright regimes. While the U.K. had a relatively restrictive copyright law on the books as of 1710, the German empire didn’t address the issue until 1837. Even after such a law was proclaimed, it was barely enforced.

Where copyright led to books being priced as luxury goods in the U.K., the threat of piracy forced German publishers to produce cheap editions for the masses alongside their premium-priced editions, resulting in a period that Höffner believes may have been the most lucrative ever for authors—he discovered, for example, that an obscure Berlin chemist earned more in royalties for a tract on how to tan leather than Mary Shelley did for writing Frankenstein—prompting more academics to publish their findings, and encouraging the spread of practical manuals in fields like medicine, engineering and agriculture.

“For technical development, the broad distribution of knowledge was essential,” Höffner says via e-mail. “The production of knowledge is mainly the reproduction of knowledge, adding a little bit to the work of others. You use an ocean of knowledge from other people and add one drop of water.”

Höffner’s research grew out of an interest in the usefulness of software patents, which he suspects are too restrictive over the long term. Relaxed copyright’s role in the rise of Germany as economic superpower suggests proof that “longer and stronger protection has negative impacts.” More recently, the likes of China have profited from a considerably looser approach to IP than that of the developed West. A study by the Business Software Alliance and IDC found that in 2009 China used the equivalent of US$7.6-billion worth of illegal software, an increase of US$900 million over the year previous. The benefits to this, and countless other laxities, are printed plain on the Middle Kingdom’s balance sheets.

Höffner’s claims have met with skepticism from some quarters. For one, University of California at Santa Cruz history professor Matthew Lasar, in a posting at Ars Technica, wonders why countries with stronger 19th-century IP laws—British colonies Canada and Australia are cited among them—grew at least as much as did Germany.

But the research has been embraced by those here and abroad who are leery of restrictive copyright laws. “[It] highlights what many have argued for decades—the notion that stronger copyright laws are directly linked to increased economic growth is simply false,” says University of Ottawa law professor and IP expert Michael Geist. “From a Canadian perspective, the research serves as a timely reminder of the need to draft copyright laws that reflect the Canadian national interest, rather than attempt to satisfy foreign pressures.”