Decennial ABC: M as in Monopoly


Which encyclopedia ever had a monopoly of knowledge?

In June 2010, the Wikipedia convention Skillshare hosted Kai Gniffke, the head of the news section of Germany’s ‘first television’ ARD. Gniffke explained about the values and goals of the ARD and recalled complains around the Kachelmann case. The weather presentator Jörg Kachelmann had been accused of rape but ARD did not report about the initial inquiries of the prosecutor (there was still no preferral of charges). This was all according to the rules of ARD, but some people accused ARD of protecting their own weatherman, abusing its monopoly of information.

Of course, such accusations have no ground. There is nothing like a monopoly of information, at least not in a free democracy. Even when ARD was the only tv station in Germany in the 1950s (a monopoly of medium), there were always newspapers.

And what about encyclopedias?People suffered from limited access to books, from illiteracy and from the fact that most books in the middle ages were in Latin, but there was no author or publisher with a ‘monopoly’: there were always several encyclopedias. This is even more true for later ages. (True: In small linguistic communities the choice was and is often very limited.)

When we think of the prototype of an encyclopedia in Germany, it is Brockhaus’ Konversations-Lexikon. In the 19th century there were actually three big encyclopedias: Brockhaus, Meyer and Pierer, later also Herder. After 1945, Brockhaus had a certain monopoly in the market section of large encyclopedias: Although the publishers lost most of their possessions in the 1943 air raid on Leipzig, and later fled to Western Germany, they saved their keyword files. Meyer lost its and had to start all over and could publish a new large encyclopedia in the late 1960s.

But in all those years, there were a number of competitors on the market section of small and medium encyclopedias. Especially in the 1970s other publishers came up with encyclopedias, for example Bertelsmann and Knaur. It was because of this competition that Brockhaus and Meyer fused in 1984, and then in 1988 with dictionary publisher Langenscheidt in response to an offer by Robert Maxwell.

In 2009, Brockhaus-Meyer-Langenscheidt had lost the battle against CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. It became a part of the media giant Bertelsmann. Then, Federal Cartel Office (the German Antitrust Agency) had to examine whether this is an impermissible market concentration. The report eventually declared that Bertelsmann indeed had a monopoly on the market of general encyclopedias but that this market has declined so much that to a new competitor this monopoly would be the least problem.

And Wikipedia? It certainly has no monopoly of knowledge. Wikipedia even makes it appallingly easy to competitors because the content is ‘free‘. Everyone can copy it and start an online encyclopedia of his own. The problem would be to create a community that expands and maintains the content. In this way one can say that Wikipedia has a monopoly on the market of online encyclopedias.

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Previously: A as in Advertisement, …, L as in Links

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