Do copyrights and DRM inhibit the spread of knowledge?

While copyrighting creative works is nothing new, the inception of modern technology has caused a slew of debates and challenges regarding the enforcement and effects of copyrights laws. Increased interest has sparked a number of recent research projects examining copyright laws in different societies throughout history, and the resulting effects.

One such study, conducted by economic historian Eckard Hoffman, alleges that a strong copyright law not only inhibits the spread of knowledge within a society, but also limits the creators’ earnings potential.

Do copyrights and DRM inhibit the spread of knowledge?

Hoffman’s research examined the effects of strongly contrasting literary copyright laws enacted in Germany and the UK through the 18th and 19th centuries and found some stark differences.

Germany, a country with weak and sometimes non-existent copyright laws in the 1800’s, experienced an information boom of literature and scientific works as well as innovation throughout the market. Books were accessible to both the wealthy and working-class by segmenting the market into hardcovers and paperbacks.

Meanwhile, in England and France where copyright law was quite strict and books remained expensive, the spread of knowledge though written works was limited to the wealthy and elite classes of society.

Hoffman points out that writers in Germany created ten times more new works than writers in England over the same period of time. He even goes so far as to blame the limited supply of written works for England’s loss of colonial power and credit Germany’s literary explosion with their rise as an industrial nation.

In more recent times, as Germany has enacted their own strong copyright regulations, authors are watching book prices rise as their earnings drop. No longer were they able to work with multiple printers, and the lack of competition completely changed the publishing industry.

So how does Hoffman’s study apply to modern society, and can the same principles be applied to digital information versus print? Basically, our DRM and copyright protection could be hurting the intelligent growth of our society while promoting a larger divide in social classes. Piracy doesn’t just exist because people don’t want to pay; there are some out there who download because they actually have the inability to pay. Only the middle and upper classes can afford legal books and music. Will we suffer as a result?