The public domain is a great thing. It allows creators to earn money off their work for a decent amount of time and eventually allows other creators to interpret and remix that work freely. At least, that is how it is supposed to work. Thanks to companies like Disney, copyright has been extended further and further to allow companies and estates to make more money.
Despite this, 2020 marks the second time in decades that works will enter the public domain. Included in the list of works entering the public domain this year are the works of George Gershwin, an American composer famous for music such as Rhapsody in Blue. And boy is his estate annoyed about it.
According to The New York Times , Marc Gershwin is concerned about his uncle’s work entering the public domain. He claimed that the family’s trust had a problem with the potential for work such as Porgy and Bess being accessible without the family’s consent.
In the original article, Gershwin claimed that “someone could turn ‘Porgy and Bess’ into rap music,” like that would be a problem. In truth, all this comment does is show the importance of the public domain – as well as hinting at the true motives of companies seeking to extend their copyright.
Porgy and Bess is an opera based on a stage play and book. It tells the story of a disabled African-American beggar and his life in the slums of 1920’s Charleston. It has had a difficult relationship with certain audiences since it was released. I can’t imagine that influencing rap would be the worst thing that could happen to it. In fact, the idea of an African-American artist more accurately representing that struggle through their own music is probably the most respectful thing that could happen to Porgy and Bess.
The truth is that entities like the Gershwin Estate and Disney don’t care about ‘respecting’ their properties. Their distaste for the public domain is solely based on how much money they stand to lose. Creativity thrives with the help of the public domain. For centuries, pretty much all art borrowed elements or straight-up ‘remixed’ older art.
The fact that companies managed to turn copyright law into the broken mess it is right now is a tragedy. These days companies and estates can make money off of the work of dead creators for nearly as long as the average human life span. This huge public domain bottleneck has been stifling creativity for decades.
Thankfully since last year, the public domain is finally getting new content. If we’re lucky, it will continue to do so for many years to come – especially since we know just how dangerous copyright has proven to be. Having said that, chances are that Disney will have something to say about that. Mickey Mouse is supposed to become public domain in 2024 . Chances are they’ll be bullying the supreme court to stop that from happening before too long.