Can Artists Make Money Without Copyrights?

Release Date
March 22, 2013


Free Markets and Capitalism Rights

You may be familiar with the tune of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Donna è Mobile” from his opera Rigoletto. If not, perhaps you recognize it from popular soccer chants. Verdi’s famous tune provides an interesting case study in intellectual property rights. Professor Stephen Davies outlines three ways intellectual property can be understood:
1.       It can be treated as regular property. If so, it would not be time limited and Verdi’s estate would still be collecting royalties from the song. Chanting based on the tune at sporting events could be subject to a fine or penalty.
2.       It can have a time-limited definition. This is the more common understanding of intellectual property. If so, Verdi (or his estate) may have held the right to receive royalties from this song for a set period of time. After that time period elapsed, the song would enter the public domain.
3.       It could not be protected at all. This was the case in Verdi’s time.
Although Verdi did not have power to prevent others from using his song or from profiting from it, he still produced the song. Not only that, but he also profited from the song because people recognized Verdi as its creator. They were willing to pay a premium to hear it performed by Verdi’s company or by people to whom Verdi gave official approval. This case demonstrates that intellectual property rights are not necessary to stimulate such artistic creativity.

To hear a beautiful version of La Donna e Mobile, performed by legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, click here: La Donna e Mobile
Learn More
1.       Intellectual Property in the Music Industry [blog post]: A brief explanation of the IP challenge in the music industry and how young, innovative artists must find innovative ways to protect their craft
2.       Did Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” Honesty Box Actually Damage the Music Industry? [Article]: How one band dared to find a new paradigm for selling albums, and how they changed the music business
3.       Can We Save the Music Business? [Article]: National Review proposes a private solution to the problem of intellectual property protection
4.       Intellectual Property Rights Debate (video): A rousing debate about IP and music at FEE’s Freedom University

Can Artists Make Money Without Copyrights?

[Singing, La La La La]
This is the song “La Donna è Mobile” composed by Giuseppe Verdi for his opera Rigoletto. I am sure you all recognize it. Back in the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi knew he was on to a winner so he actually kept the entire score secret and didn’t even show it to the lead tenor until two days before the first performance of the opera. And he was right to do this, because within a week of the first performance the sheet music was being widely sold and transcribed and many people were putting on performances of this song, which has now gone into the popular lexicon and is widely used by, for example, soccer fans around the world.
What we have here is an argument about intellectual property. And the reason why it’s a complicated argument is because there are three quite distinct and different ways of understanding what intellectual property is. If we think that intellectual property is like any other kind of property, then it must be—like other kinds of property—perpetual. That would mean in this case that Verdi’s estate would still own the rights to the song, and this would mean that if, for example, as a soccer fan you chanted a chant which used the tune from this famous song, you would be violating the intellectual property of Verdi’s estate, and you would be subject to penalties.
It would mean that anytime anybody anywhere wanted to use the music or to perform the song, they would have to pay a royalty. If, on the other hand, the kind of intellectual property which we are more familiar with was applied, the time-limited property of copyright, then Verdi would have enjoyed a copyright in this song for a limited number of years from the time of the first performance. It might have been for, say, 25 years. It might have been for his whole lifetime and a certain number of years thereafter. But it would ultimately have expired. Once the copyright had expired, it would then in fact become part of the public domain and freely accessible for anyone who wished to make use of it.
The third possibility is the one which in fact did apply because there was no intellectual property in Italy at the time when Verdi composed his opera. That is, as soon as he had published the song by having a public performance in an opera house, it became freely available for anyone who wanted to use it, to develop it, to amend it, to perform it. Now that, in fact, was the case, but it did not stop Verdi from making a considerable amount of money out of Rigoletto as with his other operas. That is because he was famous as the creator of the song. He was able to play upon that, and many people would willingly pay a premium to hear the song and other songs in the great opera performed by his own company or by people that he gave official approval to. And so this suggests that in fact, given this real-life case, there is no need to have that kind of intellectual property to encourage artistic creativity of this kind.
I hope you really enjoyed this. Click on one of these links here to watch more and learn more. If you want to do more, and more than watch videos, then click on these links here to find out about more student opportunities.
[Singing, La La La La]
VOICE: Sir, it’s over. Everyone’s gone home.
DAVIES: Right. Okay.