Comparing Soviet and GDR Patent Secrecy

An analysis of declassified GDR patent information reveals that patent secrecy in the GDR was considerably less pronounced (about 2 percent of total annual applications) than patent secrecy in the USSR (about 36 percent of total applications by the mid 1980s). Nevertheless, patent secrecy in the GDR and the USSR was more pronounced than that reported in selected market economies (FRG - 0.2 per cent of total applications, France 0.6 percent of total applications and United States - secrecy orders comprised 0.1 percent of total granted patents).

One insider's account1 of the Soviet chemical weapons industry describes in detail the cumbersome security measures imposed on secret R&D facilities and leaves no doubt that widespread secrecy stifled the flow of information among research personnel even when considering that a special state network of classified technical information centers was established to facilitate information exchange. Secrecy measures encumbered GDR scientists, too. The Stasi's Hauptabteilung I under Col. Rosenthal viewed the GDR patent office's secrecy regime as an important part of the anti-imperialist struggle, but the GDR's relatively smaller share of secret patents and its smaller size possibly lessened secrecy's negative impact on the economy.

A brief description of the development of the laser industry in the United States, Soviet Union and the GDR reveals these differing degrees of state security. The United States published domestic laser patents more openly than did the the GDR and the Soviet Union, with relatively few secrecy orders imposed on laser applications. The degree of patent secrecy at Carl Zeiss Jena, an important player in the GDR's laser efforts, remains somewhat unclear because of unaccounted patents from its U-Betrieb, a special defense-oriented branch. Still, even assuming all of the missing U-Betrieb patents to be laser-related and secret, the GDR's degree of secrecy remains considerably below that of the Soviet Union's.

Patent secrecy, while relatively rare in market economies, should be taken into account by any researcher using Soviet and GDR data. Alas, it rarely is.

The highly detailed aspects of bibliographic patent information - facility names, inventors names, dates, and detailed subject matter categories - make patent data attractive to historians and economists. However, there are numerous issues, of which secrecy is only one, in interpreting them. Two recent studies using GDR and Soviet patent information appear flawed by ignoring the impact of secret patenting on their conclusions.2

1/ Mirzayanov, V. S. (2009). State secrets: An insider's chronicle of the Russian chemical weapons program. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, Inc.

2/ See Kogut, Bruce and Udo Zander. "Did Socialism Fail to Innovate? A Natural Experiment of the Two Zeiss Companies," American Sociological Review Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 169-190.

Cook, Lisa. A Green Light for Red Patents? Evidence from Soviet Experiments with the Market and Invention, 1959 to 1991