Home / Insights / Napolean, the Opera, and How Copyright Encourages Creativity

Napolean, the Opera, and How Copyright Encourages Creativity

by | Oct 24, 2019 | Copyrights, Intellectual Property

For decades, the argument has been made that artists find inspiration from works in the public domain. Over the last several decades, though, corporations with big money involved in maintaining the copyright registrations to their intellectual property assets have fought hard to have the period of protection – and their rights – extended, keeping many beloved works from entering the public domain. 

With each new extension of copyright registrations, there is an outcry against this practice. And we can probably agree that there is some merit to the notion that extending the time period for copyright protection for works otherwise slated to become public property may prevent new ideas which might otherwise arise out of them.   

Oddly enough, though, recent research1 has actually revealed that the contrary is true.

Specifically, one pair of researchers discovered how Napoleonic era copyright proved to encourage creativity… to a point. Below, we’re going to share some of the reasons why. 

Does Copyright Law Truly Promote the Progress of the Arts?

The US Constitution explains the purpose of copyright law is “to promote the progress of science and useful Arts.” As experienced copyright attorneys, we invoke this protection for our clients often in an effort to ensure they are properly compensated for their creative work.

In the height of the digital age, however, we face a deep blurring of lines between true inspiration from someone else’s work and unfairly utilizing the work of others. So it only makes sense that we question whether copyright law can actually be effective at all.

Enter Petra Moser and Michela Giorcelli – two Stanford researchers (at the time of their study2) interested in the driving factors behind creativity, productivity, and innovation.

Case Study: Italian Operas Rise Following Napoleon’s Copyright Laws 

Prior to introducing French copyright law to Italy in 1801, copyright protection for Italian composers simply didn’t exist. Upon completion of an opera, the composer transferred all rights to the theater’s impresario (usually the person who commissioned him) and saw no further compensation.

Napoleon changed all this. Specifically in northern and northeastern regions of France, then known as Lombardy and Venezia, respectively, where France’s copyright law was effectively imposed, authors, artists, and composers began retaining exclusive rights to their creative works for life plus 10 years to benefit their heirs. 

The results?  Moser and Giorcelli say they responded by creating more operas – 2+ more per year, in fact, compared to Italian states without the new laws. This was an initial increase of 150 percent – and that was only the beginning! 

The continued spread of copyright law adoption seemed to allow creativity to flourish in a myriad of ways: 

  • Composers actively migrated to the Lombardy and Venetia regions to present their operatic works in order that they would be copyright-protected.
  • There, they could demand royalties for multiple runs and, in general, operas became a well-financed, thriving art form. 
  • Every state with copyright laws reflected an increase in new operas each year.
  • Copyrighted operas were also performed more often, recorded in history, and thus are more readily available even today.

So, these young researchers concluded that the Napoleonic copyright law imposed upon Northern Italian states resulted in more and better art. Right there in the numbers, it was proven that copyright protections boosted creativity.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story…

Lengthy Copyright Extensions Appear to Have Negative Impacts

In addition to the above, the Stanford research3 also proved that copyright protection follows the adage that you can have too much of a good thing. How so?

Over time, Italian states continued lengthening the duration of copyright protection. Up to the point of extending protections to life-plus-30 years, production plateaued at about a single opera per year, per state. 

However, once protections extended beyond 40 years, overall production began to fall. In other words, the continuous extension of copyright protections – just as we see in today’s ongoing copyright debates – can eventually stifle that creativity.

Whether the data rings true in today’s environment is debatable, but these findings do suggest that America’s copyright protection period of life-plus-70 could be three decades too long.

In any case, these are interesting findings – especially in light of the monopolies on nearly century-old works held by big corporations (not individual artists) like Disney. 

Where basic copyright protections can now be definitively proven to encourage creativity among individuals, only time will tell whether legislators believe that data applies to the likes of a corporate entity. 

In the meantime, here at Marks Gray, we will continue to fight for our creative clients’ rights to protect their original works. 


  1.  Moser, Petra and Michella Giorcelli. (2014) Copyright and Creativity — Evidence from Italian Operas. Retrieved from Stanford University King Center on Global Development website: https://kingcenter.stanford.edu/publications/copyright-and-creativity-evidence-italian-operas
  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.


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