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Did Germany experience industrial boom in 19th c due to absence of copyright? (spiegel.de)
95 points by afschar on Aug 19, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

China probably wouldn't be growing as quickly today if it strictly respected copyrights.

Copyrights favor established industrial producers because they hold the IP.

It is arguable that this has only become true in the past ten years. For a long time lack of IP controls was a big barrier to international trade for China.

I'm not asking this to be snide, or sarcastic, but...

Do you have a source for that? I'd be interested in seeing such a thing.

The US had lax copyright early on. It makes sense for a net importer of IP. It's a great way to catch up. But what about the originators of the industrial revolution? Would they have done even better without copyright? I don't know, but the industrial boom in Germany isn't evidence of it.

An interesting present day case is the ACM charging for academic papers. Some papers are available from the author's website for free, but some are not. Although the fee is affordable (around $20-30), do publications that are free lead to better propagation and thus more/better research?

I think it's very hard to judge this, because I think what happens in practice is that unknown academics give away their papers - it helps them to get known. Whereas the ones that you have to pay for are the massively famous ones with (eg) 700+ citations. Their knowledge is already out there in the community, and their reputation probably further promotes their research much more than the small fee retards it. In addition to this, you're probably better off reading a free review/summary/interpretation of the famous work than reading it in the original - so the ideas keep promulgating.

The ones that aren't on the author's website are mostly the ones whose authors aren't active on the internet at all. Of course, papers become more highly cited over time, and authors die and retire, so many of the most famous papers are in this state.

Traditionally, journals would send a few printed copies to the author so that the author could send them to people who wrote them asking for a copy, a custom that continues to some extent today. Putting the final version of the paper on your web site is simply an extension of this approach.

Copyright is pretty much irrelevant as an incentive for production of academic work. In nearly all fields, authors don't get paid by journals for writing papers. In many cases, in fact, they have to pay for the privilege of writing those papers. Academic books aren't net cash-flow negatives in the same way as journal and conference papers, but the total earnings per hour are very low.

In academic publishing, copyright has historically served as an incentive for printing academic work. Given our new methods of printing, using laser printers and computer screens, that incentive is no longer relevant. The main issue today is to prevent the last copy of an old paper from being lost, and ensure that it can be found easily so that it can be copied. Libraries are better suited to these purposes than printing companies. Copyright in its current form is a serious menace to that kind of preservation.

Non-academic publishing may be a different ballgame, of course. I don't know.

From the selfish viewpoint of the researcher, open access seems to be generally considered to increase citations and the general impact of a published paper:


Arguably the patent system in Britain also had consequences that slowed down industrialization. From this article (http://mises.org/daily/3280):

"During the period of Watt's patents [1775-1800] the United Kingdom added about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year. In the thirty years following Watt's patents, additional horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year. Moreover, the fuel efficiency of steam engines changed little during the period of Watt's patent; while between 1810 and 1835 it is estimated to have increased by a factor of five."

Wouldn't you expect both efficiency and total capacity to increase exponentially in the first half of a sigmoid adoption curve without taking into account any exogenous factors? Today most electric power plants are still run by steam engines, so it's likely that that exponential increase is still continuing.

Electric power plants are run by steam _turbines_ today (invented by sir Charles Parsons in 1884). I don't think there are any steam _engines_ in industrial operation.

Regarding the logistic curve, yes, your point is valid in general; however, the article cited makes it clear that Watt's patent dramatically slowed down the adoption rate by delaying essential improvements for 25 years. In particular, the adoption of high-pressure steam (an idea Watt simply disliked) proved essential for locomotives and for improving the fuel efficiency to a level where steam engines were practical in more than a small corner of the British economy.

The steam turbine (invented by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century BC, and improved dramatically since then by Parsons, among others) is a kind of steam engine. With regard to reciprocating steam engines, I don't know of any in current use either, but I would be surprised if there weren't at least a few niche uses.

You are certainly correct about high-pressure steam being essential. Did Watt's patent make it illegal to develop high-pressure steam engines, or just uneconomic?

The (practical) steam turbine is one of the fundamental, yet unacknowledged, bases of our material civilization. Parsons based his intricate design on the equations of thermodynamics; he succeeded in a very complicated task where many others had tried, and failed. His work is about as many orders of magnitude more complex and demanding than Hero's aoelipile as a modern race car is compared to a spring-powered toy cart.

That said, I agree that the terminology is flexible and the steam turbine can be considered a kind of steam engine; it is, however, very different in its principle of operation from the Watt-type steam engine (which it displaced in the XXth century). Regarding high-pressure steam, as far as I know Watt's patent precluded anyone from using a condenser in their steam engine, which is an essential component. Thus only engineers affiliated with Watt himself were able to produce commercial steam engines during the 25 years he held the patent, and he refused to let them work with high-pressure steam (despite a good deal of interest).

For a more thorough, and much better documented, discussion of these issues, I recommend chapter 3 (Internal Combustion Engines) of Vaclav Smil's book "Creating the Twentieth Century".

It certainly is a very important invention, but I'm not sure what you mean by "complex and demanding"; you can build a perfectly good steam turbine with one moving part plus a high-temperature thrust bearing.

A condenser is not an essential component for a high-pressure steam engine. It can be useful (modern power-plant steam turbines use condensers because they're quite sensitive to lime deposits, so the water has to be expensively purified before use) but e.g. steam locomotives did not normally use them.

It is not the case that there were no non-Watt commercial steam engines built in England during Watt's patent; a good number of Newcomen-type engines continued to be built. But thank you for explaining that Watt refused to license his patent.

Thank you very much for the book recommendation! It sounds like a book I've been wanting to write. Maybe Smil has saved me the trouble.

It's interesting that reciprocating engines are quite common in the modern economy outside of the steam department. There are even commercial electric power plants driven by reciprocating engines. But they're internal-combustion.

The concept is relatively simple (once someone thought of it...), it's the execution that's difficult. (For a simpler example, let's look at breech-loading firearms: the idea appeared almost as soon as gunpowder, but it took until the 2nd half of the 19th century to achieve cheap, practical designs.) In the Parsons turbine, the shape of the components is much more complex than the piston plus cylinder of the Watt engine (see http://www.leander-project.homecall.co.uk/turbines.html for a diagram). All the little blades and such also need to hold up to high pressures and temperatures.

I'm not entirely sure about the condenser bit, but I do remember Smil addressing the issue with references and all. His books are quite amazing, it's quite a pity they're not better known.

You are of course correct that the Parsons turbine is quite complex and demanding; I didn't realize how fully he had developed the concept. (I still take issue with "as demanding as a [modern] race car", though.)

However, simple rotary pneumatic motors are used quite effectively in many hand tools, and they're essentially low-speed turbines. They don't have the immense efficiency of the Parsons turbine, but they are quite simple and can be quite reliable. (The high-speed ones used in dentists' drills had to wait for the development of the air bearing, though.)

Who is Smil?

Vaclav Smil - a professor who writes wonderfully detailed books about the history of technology, among other subjects.

But 0 to the first 750 horsepower is a very important step.

Watt didn't build the first steam engine, not even the first commercially successful steam engine. Newcomen's engine (in widespread use before Watt was even born) developed about 8HP and was widely adopted by British mine owners:


Perhaps the RIAA can spin this into a campaign: "absence of copyright responsible for two world wars!"

Cancer is responsible. If only Friedrich Wilhelm I would have survived on the throne for more than 100 days, say a few decades.

Friedrich III, right? I was confused there for a moment.

He was the third King of Prussia with that name, but the first Emperor of Germany. So both numbers are correct in their context.

One could argue (and probably someone has) that the web boom of the past 10-15 years also benefits from weak intellectual property. Imagine the pace of progress if, for example, Experts-Exchange were able to sue Stack Overflow for cloning their idea, or Quora were now in litigation over Facebook Questions.

... or if there were no View Source browser option.

Very interesting article, especially in contrast with the English claim that the copyright was the key to the industrial revolution: http://www.economist.com/node/16789318?story_id=16789318

I would be cautious about explaining such complex event by a single reason, as alway there are many factors involved.

Actually, there are claims that patent monopolies delay the industrial revolution, rather than advance it.

Too bad the book in question isn't free to read, otherwise, I would be able to add more knowledge about the other side.

The abolitionists on the other hand, cheerfully made their work freely available when they can. They also happens to make a few bucks off of it too.

Yes. This study is interesting in that it compares two economies. Of course there were many more differences than copyright laws only. (But I guess the author of the study is clever enough.)

If this is indeed true then there is an ironic aspect to it. The continued non-existence of a German state until 1871 – here presented as the reason for the lack of effectiveness of copyright law in the German states – is one of the canonical reasons why the German states were lagging behind in their economic development. (It’s hard to be all that successful when your company has to ship its product through half a dozen states [+] – all with customs and different laws – just to get it from Cologne to Munich.)

It’s certainly nice to see attempts at explaining why Germany caught up with and to some extent even overtook England. I don’t think that the canonical explanations (which to me always seem to include a lot of handwaving) are very convincing.

[+] Map: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e9/Deu...

It also doesn't cover correlation/causation. Did the book boom cause their industrialization, or did the mass industrialization cause the book boom?

Whether they're correlated at all is a valid question, but I don't think you can argue that mass industrialization of Germany caused the book boom, considering that the book boom started over a century before mass industrialization began in earnest.

It seems far more plausible that there was an exogenous factor causing the book boom in Germany: the number of Germans that actually knew how to read

The article hints at this when it suggests a German earned more in royalties (without effective copyright) for a treatise on leather tanning at the beginning of the century than Mary Shelley did for Frankenstein. Either UK publishers were exceptionally bad at maximising revenue (or sharing it with authors), or there was a much greater demand for books in Germany which had little to do with the supply of cheap copies

A highly plausible explanation is that German appetite for reading was driven by compulsory state-sponsored primary education, contrasting with the part-time, parochial education available in the UK at the time.

Despite low literacy rates the UK did a pretty impressive job of industrialising in the 20th century; to argue otherwise is to ignore the rate of absolute progress in favour of dubious relative metrics in the manner of Wired's recent "web is dead".

Oh, the UK’s industry was and still is impressive. But the German states were far, far, far behind in the 19th century. It’s just surprising that they could catch up at all.

It's not really that suprising. Industrialization originated in the UK, and emerged gradually from the economic and cultural situation there without any intentional design. When the Germans began industrializing, the UK's industry was mature and well-developed, which provided a very detailed practical example to reference.

19th-century Germany and Japan and modern China have all had the ability to work directly toward a goal, rather than having to wait for industrialization to emerge naturally from within their own economies (although if they had, it would probably have produced a set of customs and practices much more suited to their own cultures and economic conditions).

It does seem that the faster knowledge can spread, the faster industrial and technological development happens.

One would think, then, that economic strength is related to not how much money publishers make - but to how thoroughly knowledge is distributed throughout the country.

Given this, could a valid economy be built where there are no copyright laws? Where writers, researchers and other creators of works to be published are paid by how many people read them - but not directly by the people who read them?

Getting the government involved would likely lead to rapid politicization of what gets published. What entity would step up to fund this, then?

In other words:

If spreading knowledge without the encumberance of copyright law enhances the economy and makes everyone richer (except, presumably, the artist whose work will be copied), what system could be put in place to make sure the artist/researcher/scientist/inventor is compensated for his contributions to the growth of the economy?

It seems like German authors did publish lots and lots of things in the 19th century, without copyright. So why bother with a replacement. Just get rid of it.

(The 19th century is considered the classic period of German literature. And arguably of German science, too.)

If spreading knowledge without the encumberance of copyright law enhances the economy and makes everyone richer (except, presumably, the artist whose work will be copied), what system could be put in place to make sure the artist/researcher/scientist/inventor is compensated for his contributions to the growth of the economy?

In the past, there has been example of American publishers paying more money to British authors than they receive in royalty in their own land even though USA didn't recognize foreign copyright at the time.

Even though there was no copyright, the same thing happened to America as it did to Germany. There was increased literacy built on the back of (in some case well-compensated) British authors.

I am sure artist/inventors/researchers/scientists can find business models that substain themselves.

It should have been relatively easy to transplant the British literature to America. Do you know how much transfer there was to Germany?

No. The book I read contain case study on British-America copyright regime but nothing that I can remember dealing with Germany-British copyright regime.

What if you could combine "no intellectual privileges" (and therefor unlimited and natural dissemination of intelligence throughout the population) with an unconditional basic income for every citizen? That way "creatives" are payed enough to take the money issue of the table.

With an interesting alternative title.

What is the alternative title in english?

German: Explosion des Wissens

English: Explosion of Knowledge

The title itself isn't very interesting. The change is.

A superb book on the economic history of intellectual property legislation around the world:


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