Piracy and Germany’s Industrial Expansion

Since I am currently doing an internship at Siemens Corporate Research, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the largest European engineering conglomerate [1]. Founded by Werner von Siemens in 1847, Siemens is a product of the Second Industrial Revolution; a prosperous time for Germany. According to an article in Der Spiegel titled “No Copyright, The Real Reason for Germany’s Industrial Expansion?”, it may just have been Germany’s relaxed copyright laws that allowed the country to fare so well during these times of technological and economic progress.

The article outlines the argument made by economic historian Eckhard Höffner. He states that the absence of strictly enforced copyright laws was of great influence on the disseminiation of scientific knowledge. Whereas in comparable countries such as England, the publication of academic research and technological inventions was controlled by an elite clique, German scientists were able to reach a wide audience due to their works being copied, pirated and spread.

The prospect of a wide readership motivated scientists in particular to publish the results of their research. In Höffner’s analysis, “a completely new form of imparting knowledge established itself.”

Essentially the only method for disseminating new knowledge that people of that period had known was verbal instruction from a master or scholar at a university. Now, suddenly, a multitude of high-level treatises circulated throughout the country.

While this is obviously not a wholistic explanation for the explosion of scientific and technological progress in 19th century Germany, it offers an interesting perspective on the role of copyright in a time where this topic is hotter than ever. Were 19th century German scientists and inventors poor gullible bastards that got their works stolen from them by the masses? It doesn’t look like it.

Sigismund Hermbstädt […] 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.

Now only if someone pirated Eckhard’s own book “Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts” so I don’t have to import it from Germany for an insane price, we could put his theories to the test ;)

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