Friday, December 4, 2020

Lessons about Copyright from the History of Italian Operas

When studying the effects of copyright, one would ideally like to compare settings with and without it. In a modern context, one can look for effects of various changes or extensions in copyright, but it's harder to make comparisons with what creative markets would be like if there was no copyright at all. However, Michela Giorcelli and Petra Moser offer a thought-provoking historical example in "Copyrights and Creativity: Evidence from Italian Opera in the Napoleonic Age" (Journal of Political Economy, November 2020,  128:11, pp. 4163-4210).  

Here's a quick overview of the historical context: 
In 1796, Napoléon began his Italian campaign by invading the Kingdom of Sardinia at Ceva. Although he was unable to subdue Sardinia at the time, two other states, Lombardy and Venetia, were annexed and formed the Cisalpine Republic, which adopted French laws. In 1801, the Republic adopted France’s copyright laws of 1793, granting composers exclusive rights for the duration of their lives, plus 10 years for their heirs (Legge 19 Fiorile anno IX repubblicano, Art. 1–2; Repubblica Cisalpina 1801). In 1804, France replaced its system of feudal laws and aristocratic privilege with the code civil, a codified system of civic laws. The code left copyrights intact where they already existed but did not introduce them in states without copyright laws. As a result, only Lombardy and Venetia offered copyrights until the 1820s (Foà 2001b, 64), while all other Italian states that came under French rule after 1804 had no copyrights, even though they shared the same exposure to French rule, as well as the same language and culture. The empirical analysis examines rich new data on 2,598 operas that composers created across eight Italian states between 1770 and 1900.
In other words, this is a setting where a certain type of performing art is extremely popular, where we have good historical records on performances at the time and since then, and where there was a clear-cut break between nearby regions where some had copyright and some did not. What do they observe? 

Giorcelli and Moser find that in the years before the copyright law takes effect in Lombardy and Venetia, the Italian states look pretty similar both in terms of supply of new operas and also in demand for operas (as measured by factors like theater seats taking population and income into account). Before copyright, the average number of new operas in Lombardy and Venetia rose from 1.4 per year to 3.6 per year--a rise of 157%. 

One effect of copyright that was quickly noticed by composers is that instead of just being paid once for creating the opera, they could receive a stream of payments over time if the opera was popular enough to be performed more widely and repeatedly. When the authors look at measures of the quality of operas, like what was being performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 20th and 21st century or what recordings of operas are being sold on Amazon even today, they find that the increased quantity of operas was accompanied by higher quality, as well. 

Moreover, the rise in composition of operas was not primarily due to opera composers moving to the areas with copyright, although some of this did occur: instead, the same composers were producing more and better operas.  As other Italian states adopted copyright from 1826 to 1840, they also experienced a rise in quantity and quality of operas produced. 

One last finding is that "there were no benefits from copyright extensions beyond the life of the
original creator." It's important to remember that the broad social purpose of copyright and patent law is not to create "intellectual property" for the creator. Instead, the broad social goal as stated in the so-called "Patents and Copyrights Clause" of the US Constitution is "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." In other words, giving rights to the author for a limited time is the tool, but the actual social goal is progress in science and art. The issue that arises here in both science and art is that new creations are often built on older ones. If an earlier creator is given too much power, or for too long a time, later progress of science and useful arts can be hindered rather than helped. In our modern economy, corporate ownership of intellectual property means that there will always be political pressure to extend and strengthen copyright and patent law to cover creations that are still bringing in royalties. It's important to remember that while such expansions of intellectual property undoubtedly benefit those who hold the copyrights and patents, they may hinder the creation of new innovations.

For some previous posts on copyright, see: