Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for September 2010

Case Study of How Knowledge Economy Triggered Industrial Growth

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Some interesting perspectives arise out of recent work that looks at the origins of copyright intellectual property in Germany and Britain in the 19th century. Most interesting is the vantage point offered on the implications for innovation in science, engineering, and technology generally. The view emerging from this work is that wide circulation of scientific, engineering and technical books was highly influential in the growth and scaling of German industry (Krupp, Siemens etc.) in the 19th century.

Unlike in France and Britain, in the 19th century the German lands witnessed an unparallelled knowledge explosion. In the year 1843 alone there were 14,000 new publications in German, which is, pro rata for population, about today’s level. About 1000 new publications were then appearing each year in Britain. The massive output in German included novels but was mostly scientific. Because of this, it is suggested that the underdeveloped, agricultural German lands caught up with the colonial powers in terms of technological and social development during the 19th century.

The British introduced copyright in 1710. Prussia did so in 1837. Copyright was a considerable time being established though in the German lands. The result was that in Britain, books were a luxury, produced in runs of up to 750 copies, bought by the rich and powerful, but also guaranteeing profits for publishing houses. In the German lands, a way was found to face down the lack of copyright and breaching of any and all ownership rights: a dual market was developed with inexpensive paperbacks to target first mover advantage, and to undercut copies made by others.

A most interesting market developed in practical and applied treatises and manuals in chemistry, mechanics, machines and production, optics, steel production, and other areas. Many professors supplemented their income through the huge demand for scientific and engineering knowledge of all sorts. This was the age that gave rise to the big industrialists, like Alfred Krupp and Werner von Siemens.

However as copyright came in increasingly from the 1840s onwards, and the cheap editions became less and less common, but prices went up and up, the generalizing of author rights was no substitute at all for what had been so lucrative beforehand for author and beneficial for reader, and for wider society.

Interesting perspectives. Could we have today anything like the possibility of markets and economic sectors “developed in practical and applied treatises and manuals”, based on open innovation models? The answer is clearly yes, considering all the crowd-sourced, web-based possibilities.

But in health, governance, education and other areas, we still have a considerable way to go, before quality of information and knowledge are what they should be. A job – a most inspiring job – needs to be done, to turn today’s 21st century innovation models, whether open or proprietary, into a deep and broad citizen science.

The book at issue here is Eckhard Höffner’s Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts, Band 1, Band 2. Verlag Europäische Wirtschaft, München, 2010. A review is available in Der Spiegel and online in English.

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Written by Fionn Murtagh

2010/09/05 at 20:54