Evidence from opera on the efficacy of copyright

Michela Giorcelli and Petra Moser have a new paper, the abstract is this:

This paper exploits variation in the adoption of copyright laws within Italy – as a result of Napoleon’s military campaign – to examine the effects of copyrights on creativity. To measure variation in the quantity and quality of creative output, we have collected detailed data on 2,598 operas that premiered across eight states within Italy between 1770 and 1900. These data indicate that the adoption of copyrights led to a significant increase in the number of new operas premiered per state and year. Moreover, we find that the number of high-quality operas also increased – measured both by their contemporary popularity and by the longevity of operas. By comparison, evidence for a significant effect of copyright extensions is substantially more limited. Data on composers’ places of birth indicate that the adoption of copyrights triggered a shift in patterns of composers’ migration, and helped attract a large number of new composers to states that offered copyrights.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.


You could do some of the same empirical work with the effect of the introduction of international copyright conventions.

My first thought: could this be a trade diversion sort of effect? Meaning, you would get the result of the quantity and quality of operas was fixed, but writers moved to the places with copyright.

Reading the abstract, they seem to be aware of this. Might the optimal strategy be: some places protect copyright, some don't, and thus productive clusters form, taking advantage of increasing returns (that may not all accrue to the producers, and thus otherwise not exist?)

Looks like it could be. They note on pg2 that opera was generally on the upswing in the period they selected with the cutoff being when copyright became universal (but also into the modern period when opera has been in severe decline; Venice has gone from 10 opera houses to like, 1 or 2?), and the details they give at the end (pg15-16) about copyright affecting composer migration both support the claim that copyright had effects but also undermine any claim that copyright increased total production - we know that a shift is possible because they show the composers shifting locations!

I'm not sure how you could try to distinguish between opera growing + diversion, and copyright increasing total output; there's no control Italy, after all.

Ooh, I like this game! I want to play too!

Before the American Civil War, for thousands of years: no light bulbs.

Only a few years after the American Civil War: lots of light bulbs in America!

Ergo: civil wars cause light bulbs to proliferate.



One question, though: why hasn't the rate of production of high-quality harpsichord music been proliferating even faster on a per-capita basis in the 21st century relative to the 19th given the dramatic increase in the scope of copyright laws? It's ALMOST as though this entire thesis is a pile of horseshit.

Nice try, but you need an identifying model, like their difference-in-differences framework.

The change in light bulbs is the same in Civil War vs. non-Civil War countries.

To your other question: technological change. it appears that this new invention, the pianoforte, allows one to vary volume. Control for that first and then get back to us, preferably with an identified model.

But thanks for playing.

Picador, you are awfully smug for someone who apparently doesn't understand the paper (particularly difference in differences) AT ALL.

Hint: many people much smarter than you think about this stuff all day, best to have a little humility.

Okay, I'll take my tongue out of my cheek enough to say that:

1. Opera is an extremely culturally-specific art form. Comparing Italian opera production to English opera production is not an interesting comparison.

2. Production in the arts is an extremely contingent phenomenon: contingent on social trends, the actions of specific patrons and donors, and so on. This varies tremendously from country to country, region to region, and decade to decade.

3. Accordingly, attributing the change in production over a period of decades to a single variable is just not very compelling. Comparing production in Italy to other, similar places is fine, but other places are not Italy and weren't going through the exact social crazes and influenced by the same patrons as Italy was in those decades.

4. There's also an issue of causation: for Italy to implement and retain the Napoleonic changes to copyright, there would have had to be a certain juridical and social attitude toward copyright and the production of certain types of artistic and literary works during those decades. Societies that pride themselves on the high-profile (i.e. expensive to create and/or perform) work of their artists tend to create a cult of the artist that feeds into a legal regime focusing on creators' rights. Thus, the general legal and social hostility toward monopolies is often granted an exemption when it comes to certain kinds of socially-approved authors and artists. The more powerful this cult, the broader and thicker this monopoly tends to be. This does not support the thesis that such monopolies stimulate production; only that in societies in which such production is a big deal, copyright laws are more likely to be weighted in favour of certain types of creators and against the public.

Per capita?

Per capita, income-adjusted, controlling for technology diffusion, etc, etc.

Why not continue the analysis to 2014? Oh, because after 1900, the trends on opera number/quality go the other way?

No science please, we're economists.

I once read a book written by a humanities major that tried to make the point of this study, that in the 19th century authors wrote with a keen eye to copyright. The subject was Dickens. Cannot find the book but I support this study: people respond to incentives. The IP business is in the same infant shape today as the abolitionist movement was, or the enfranchisement of women movement was, 100-200 years ago. Today, society depends on altruism for innovation, by and large. Consequently, the actual inventors are often hostile to IP (since they themselves don't value it), and society takes this as a clue that everything is well with innovation.

Dickens used to have his work 'pirated' in the U.S. - mainly because the U.S. did not respect British copyrights or patents.

And look at how that worked out for the U.S.

Some background -

'In publishing The Pickwick Papers in volume form after the book's epoch-making serial run in 1837, Dickens dedicated the work to dramatist and politician Thomas Noon Talford, partly because this writer as an M. P. had introduced a copyright bill in the House of Commons in 1836. Dickens was already aware of how much money he was losing as a result of massive violations of his copyright both at home (via theatrical adaptations) and abroad (via cheap American re-prints). As a shorthand reporter for The Mirror of Parliament and the True Sun (1831-33), young Dickens had followed the copyright question avidly from the press gallery. In 1835, while a reporter for The Morning Chronicle, Dickens applauded the efforts of the young barrister who had been elected Member of Parliament for Reading in 1835 to introduce a copyright bill, which eventually became law in 1842. In early 1844, Talford would act as Dickens's attorney in the case against Richard Egan Lee and Henry Hewitt for their flagrant plagiarism of A Christmas Carol.

Young Charles Dickens, in the process of being lionized by his Yankee readers, dared to assert that, had American publishers paid Sir Walter Scott appropriate royalties for his works re-printed in the United States from Marmion in 1808 to Castle Dangerous in 1832, he would not have faced bankruptcy in the middle of his career and would not have died at the age of 61, broken in body and mind by years of financial difficulties, and "unjustly deprived of his rightful income" (Ackroyd 350). Further, he alluded to the disgraceful treatment of Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), retired Royal Naval officer turned author, who established residency by means of his 1837 tour, but was subsequently denied copyright protection by American courts unless he were prepared to renounce his status as a British subject and become an American citizen.

Dickens was essentially using the plight of these authors to argue his own case, for as fast as he turned out The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and other early novels, American publishing houses snapped them up and published them in cheap editions which sold in the thousands across the country, pocketing the proceeds without sending so much as a letter of thanks to Boz. The piracies began as early as the publication of Sketches by Boz in 1834.

He bewailed, ironically, "the exquisite justice of never deriving sixpence from an enormous American sale of all my books." Having already spoken up for increased copyright protection in Britain and for a British-American agreement, he had it in mind to advance a just cause from which he and others would benefit. Ignorant of the complications of copyright politics and of the recent severe depression, he crossed the Atlantic with the naïve expectation that in this republic of his imagination elemental notions of fairness would triumph over politics and power relationships, as if America were some elegant utopia. . . .(Kaplan 124-125)

The rowdy American press, particularly in New York, soon disabused Dickens of his utopian notions vis a vis copyright. Americans, expecting him to be grateful for their warm reception, were staggered when this young British goodwill ambassador at the beginning of 1842, at a dinner held in his honour in Boston, dared to criticize them as pirates while urging the merits of international copyright, which at that point in American history would have seen vast amounts of Yankee capital heading overseas with little reciprocation.' http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva75.html

@prior_approval--thanks but that background does not make your anti-patent case in any way. The one line throwaway "because the U.S. did not respect British copyrights or patents. And look at how that worked out for the U.S." is not supported by an evidence from Dickens. In fact, the US did well in technology because it ripped off not just UK inventors but US inventors, if you look at actual examples. The counter-factual is: what if we had a better patent system? Would the USA in the 19th century be like the 20th, with steampunk inventions like shown in the movie "Wild Wild West" with W. Smith? I think so, if patent protection was more robust. But it's hard to prove. That's because, as I say, Good Samaritans gum up the model by inventing for free. Another, better example: if you and I and others here got paid by this site for our comments, instead of the site relying on volunteers, would the quality of comments improve? I think so. What you think? TC should post this question to the readers.

Patents and movie making, however, present a different historical picture -

'However, the MPPC also established a monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking. Eastman Kodak, which owned the patent on raw film stock, was a member of the Trust and thus agreed to only sell stock to other members. Likewise, the Trust's control of patents on motion picture cameras ensured that only MPPC studios were able to film, and the projector patents allowed the Trust to make licensing agreements with distributors and theaters – and thus determine who screened their films and where.

The patents owned by the MPPC allowed them to use federal law enforcement officials to enforce their licensing agreements and to prevent unauthorized use of their cameras, films, projectors, and other equipment. In some cases, however, the MPPC made use of hired thugs and mob connections to violently disrupt productions that were not licensed by the Trust.


Backlash and decline

Many independent filmmakers, who controlled from one-quarter to one-third of the domestic marketplace, responded to the creation of the MPPC by moving their operations to Hollywood, whose distance from Edison's home base of New Jersey made it more difficult for the MPPC to enforce its patents.[6] The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is headquartered in San Francisco, California, and covers the area, was averse to enforcing patent claims.[7] Southern California was also chosen because of its beautiful year-round weather and varied countryside; its topography, semi-arid climate and widespread irrigation gave its landscapes the ability to offer motion picture shooting scenes set in deserts, jungles and great mountains.

The reasons for The MPPC's decline are manifold. The first blow came in 1911, when Eastman Kodak modified its exclusive contract with the MPPC, to allow Kodak to sell its raw film stock, which led the industry in quality and price, to unlicensed independents. The number of theaters exhibiting independent films grew by 33 percent within twelve months, to half of all houses.

Another reason was the MPPC's overestimation of the efficiency of controlling the motion picture industry through patent litigation and the exclusion of independents from licensing. The slow process of using detectives to investigate patent infringements, and of obtaining injunctions against the infringers, was outpaced by the dynamic rise of new companies in diverse locations.'


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