Last week we announced our latest Gaming Like It’s 1924: Public Domain Game Jam, and among the newly public domain works first released in 1924 is George Gershwin’s classic Rhapsody in Blue, which you might better know as the United Airlines theme song.
This is extremely noteworthy, because during the debate over the Mickey Mouse Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act fight in 1998, the Gershwin Estate was among the most vocal supporters and lobbyists in seeking an extension for the copyright. Indeed, the head of the Gershwin Estate, George’s nephew Marc was particularly worried about losing artistic control over his uncle’s work. Indeed, he seemed particularly worried that someone might make rap music out of his uncle’s work:
Marc G. Gershwin, a nephew of George and Ira Gershwin and a co-trustee of the Gershwin Family Trust, said: ”The monetary part is important, but if works of art are in the public domain, you can take them and do whatever you want with them. For instance, we’ve always licensed ‘Porgy and Bess’ for stage performance only with a black cast and chorus. That could be debased. Or someone could turn ‘Porgy and Bess’ into rap music.”
Oh, the horror. That same article noted that Gershwin seemed to be ramping up the licensing fees for his uncle’s work in the meantime:
Fifteen years ago, the license fee for using a Gershwin song in a television commercial for one year could be $45,000 to $75,000. The same song might now go for $200,000 to $250,000.
But, sure, it’s not about the money (though I’ll note that Marc recently sold his $5.4 million apartment in Manhattan). Of course, this is even more ridiculous when you realize that Gershwin frequently drew on influences of various other artists, including for Rhapsody in Blue (as for Porgy & Bess, we still have a few more years until that hits the public domain). George Gershwin himself admitted that Rhapsody in Blue was inspired by a variety of other music:
I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.
As the good folks over at the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain note, Rhapsody in Blue did draw on a variety of other types of music and now you can too, no matter what Marc Gershwin and the Gershwin Estate think:
Indeed, Rhapsody is a musical melting pot: it draws on everything from African American blues, jazz, and ragtime styles, to French impressionists and European art music, to Jewish musical traditions, to Tin Pan Alley. Now that it is in the public domain, this wonderful composition can be part of your kaleidoscope, where you can draw upon it to create something new, just as Gershwin drew upon his influences.
Of course, it does seem notable that the Gershwin publishing catalog was sold off a few months ago to Downton Music Publishing, who, it seems likely, will try to squeeze the last bit of cash out of it before it drip, drip, drips into the public domain for everyone to use.
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