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Napoleon's conquest of Italy led to a copyright-fueled opera boom

"I have come to conquer your country. But also to bring you higher-quality opera. But mostly to conquer your country."
"I have come to conquer your country. But also to bring you higher-quality opera. But mostly to conquer your country."

Copyrights exist in part to give artists credit for their work — on its surface, a copyright law is just about basic fairness. But they also incentivize new work. After all, if you think your song could easily be ripped off with no consequences, why write it in the first place?

And this is how it has been for centuries. A new study provides evidence of how copyright laws inspire more and higher-quality artistic works. Michela Giorcelli and Petra Moser, Stanford University economists, studied the Italian opera scene from the late 1700s through 1900 and found that after Napoleon invaded Italy — bringing with him French copyright laws — those copyright laws were associated with both more and higher-quality operas.

What they studied

Giorcelli and Moser analyzed data on nearly 2,600 operas performed in eight Italian states from 1770 to 1900. As of 1770, none of the eight state had copyright laws, but over the period, all eight of those states would develop those laws, starting with Lombardy and Venetia in 1801, the first states to have copyright laws under Napoleonic Rule. The authors analyzed the number of operas produced, but also used the Annals of Opera (a 1978 opera reference book) to determine "historically popular operas" — one way to measuring quality — and full-length recordings available on Amazon — a measure of durability.

What they found

Copyright laws seem to have created significantly more operas that also had staying power and were of higher quality. States with copyrights ended up producing 2.68 additional operas per year, a 121 percent increase over states without copyrights. Historically popular operas (as measured by the Annals of Opera) grew by 47 percent, and durable operas grew by 80 percent.

Copyrights implied that composers could collect royalties on their works, the authors write, which incentivized composers not only to create more operas but higher-quality operas. Had they produced mediocre works, after all, no theater would want to do repeat performances. More performances, of course, meant more income. In addition, the authors also found that composers started moving into states with copyright laws after those laws were passed.

What it means

Really, it's just a great example of how intellectual property protections are good for the economy — when you make sure a person can benefit off their work via patents, copyrights, and trademarks, it makes sense that it would encourage people to create more, high-quality works, whether it's operas or software or books or rock songs.

This all explains the very basics of how IP protections boost the economy, but importantly, it doesn't really tell you about the nuances of it. IP protections have grown stronger during the 20th, but there is a debate over how strict they should be, not to mention whether the law is behind the times in the age of Silicon Valley, as Louis Menand explores in an new New Yorker piece.

"Statutes protecting copyright have never been stricter; at the same time, every minute of every day, millions of people are making or using copies of material-texts, sounds, and images-that they didn't create," he writes.

[h/t: Marginal Revolution]

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