And here’s the most interesting thing about the Hoeffner study. Hoeffner compares the situation in Germany in the 19th Century to that in the United Kingdom, which had put a copyright law, the Statute of Anne, into place in 1709. As you might imagine, there was a lot more book piracy in Germany versus the U.K. But there were also a lot more original books produced:
“German authors during this period wrote ceaselessly. Around 14,000 new publications appeared in a single year in 1843. Measured against population numbers at the time, this reaches nearly today’s level. And although novels were published as well, the majority of the works were academic papers.
The situation in England was very different. “For the period of the Enlightenment and bourgeois emancipation, we see deplorable progress in Great Britain,” Höffner states.
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.”British readers were poorly served by U.K. copyright. But British publishers made a killing:
“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 . . . .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.”The German copyright-free market didn’t only produce more books, it also produced a mix of books that was very different from what was found in the U.K. German literary output was tilted toward academic and scientific works, as well as practical business and trade books focusing on agriculture, medicine, mechanics, and manufacturing. This is a sharp contrast with the U.K., where the market was dominated by works of literature, philosophy, theology, languages and historiography. So German publishers produced more works of value to ordinary Germans and the German economy. And U.K. publishers produced more works of value to the 19th Century version of the 1%.
A lot of what Hoeffner finds in his study resonates with our arguments in The Knockoff Economy. We are not copyright abolitionists. But arguments like Hoeffner’s should lead us to question the strength and reach of copyright’s grounding justification. Copyright is necessary, we are told, to induce authors to produce new creative works. But the evidence from 19th Century Germany and Britain undercut that claim. It isn’t just that copyright failed to spark the production of more new works in Britain. It’s that the absence of copyright resulted in more and better works in Germany. Before we wrote The Knockoff Economy, we probably would have been surprised by Hoeffner’s findings. After having written the book, we’re not surprised at all.