Der Spiegel has posted a summary of the work of economic historian Eckhard Höffner (see here for one of Höffner’s presentations). As Der Spiegel summarizes Höffner’s question, “Did Germany experience rapid industrial expansion in the 19th century due to an absence of copyright law?” Höffner argues that England’s draconian 19th century copyright laws resulted in a “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.”
As Matthew Lasar points out in his analysis for Wired, however, Höffner’s thesis is vulnerable to correlation vs. causation objections. For one thing, many European countries (and their colonies) had growth outpacing England’s during this time period, and many of these countries also had strong copyright laws.
I find one of Lasar’s other objections to Höffner’s thesis less persuasive:
…when we put all the legal and economic comparisons aside, we have to ask how much the United Kingdom really suffered from its allegedly stultifying copyright rules. Sure, the nation’s economic growth declined compared to Germany and the US, but it certainly turned out some great literature; we’re still talking about the country of Charles Dickens, John Stewart Mill, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
And don’t forget that this is the nation whose scientists discovered the electron and the precise behavior of heat, explained the nervous system, electromagnetic laws, and the true nature of evolution, and whose inventors pioneered modern steel, the telegraph, the suspension bridge, and (over a century later) the theory of Internet packet switching as it is widely understood today.
I’d be curious to hear what you think.