The Music, Books & Films Liberated into the Public Domain in 2020: Rhapsody in Blue, The Magic Mountain, Sherlock, Jr., and More

“I heard it as a sort of musi­cal kalei­do­scope of Amer­i­ca, of our vast melt­ing pot, of our undu­pli­cat­ed nation­al pep, of our blues, our met­ro­pol­i­tan mad­ness.” So said Por­gy and Bess com­pos­er George Gersh­win of Rhap­sody in Blue, the orches­tral piece he wrote back in 1924 and which has remained in the Amer­i­can canon ever since. It will sure­ly become even more wide­ly heard from this year on, since 1924 plus 95 — the term of a copy­right under cur­rent Unit­ed States law — equals 2020. Giv­en that Rhap­sody in Blue’s entrance into the pub­lic domain means that cre­ators can now freely do what they like with it, the piece will also, no doubt, under­go all man­ner of cre­ative rearrange­ment and repur­pos­ing in order to reflect the Amer­i­ca of the 2020s.

Copy­right terms did­n’t always last near­ly a cen­tu­ry. Before the 1998 Copy­right Term Exten­sion Act they last­ed only 75 years, and for the addi­tion­al two decades of wait­ing for works to enter the pub­lic domain we usu­al­ly blame Dis­ney. That enter­tain­ment giant did indeed do much of the lob­by­ing for copy­right exten­sion, seek­ing to retain its rights to Mick­ey Mouse’s 1928 debut Steam­boat Willie.

But as Duke Law’s Cen­ter for the Study of the Pub­lic Domain reports in a post on the works new­ly in pub­lic domain this year, “the Gersh­win Fam­i­ly Trust also pushed for the exten­sion, so that George and Ira Gershwin’s works from the 1920s and 1930s would remain under copy­right.” But now sev­er­al been lib­er­at­ed from it: not just Rhap­sody in Blue, but also stan­dards (with lyrics penned by Gersh­win’s broth­er Ira) like “Fas­ci­nat­ing Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good!”

2020’s is a promis­ing Pub­lic Domain Day indeed for fans of the Great Amer­i­can Song­book, what with the work of oth­er com­posers like Irv­ing Berlin (specif­i­cal­ly the pop­u­lar tune “Lazy,” well known from Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s per­for­mance in There’s No Busi­ness Like Show Busi­ness.) But the list of lit­er­ary works that have just gone pub­lic-domain is even more impres­sive, boast­ing inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed books like Thomas Man­n’s The Mag­ic Moun­tain, E.M. Forster’s A Pas­sage to India, Edith Whar­ton’s novel­la col­lec­tion Old New York, and the pil­lar of mod­ern dystopi­an lit­er­a­ture that is Yevge­ny Zamy­at­in’s We (in Eng­lish trans­la­tion by Gre­go­ry Zil­boorg). In many works of 1924, we can see the roots of the art we make and enjoy in 2020.

That holds espe­cial­ly true in the realm of film, which this year con­tributes to the pub­lic domain pic­tures from two mas­ters of silent com­e­dy: Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy and Hot Water, and Buster Keaton’s The Nav­i­ga­tor and Sher­lock, JrThat last film has the hon­or of being pre­served by the Unit­ed States Library of Con­gress for its cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance, as well as of hav­ing been named by the Amer­i­can Film Insti­tute one of the fun­ni­est motion pic­tures in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. You can learn more about all that entered the pub­lic domain this year (and what might, but for changes in the law, have entered it) at the Cen­ter for the Study of the Pub­lic Domain and the Pub­lic Domain review. But even more impor­tant than what enters the increas­ing­ly kalei­do­scop­ic melt­ing pot of the pub­lic domain, of course, is what we do with it. Future George Gersh­wins, Thomas Manns, and Buster Keatons, take note.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gersh­win Plays Gersh­win: Hear the Orig­i­nal Record­ing of Rhap­sody in Blue, with the Com­pos­er Him­self at the Piano (1924)

Ella Fitzger­ald Sings ‘Sum­mer­time’ by George Gersh­win, Berlin 1968

The Gen­er­al, “Per­haps the Great­est Film Ever Made,” and 20 Oth­er Buster Keaton Clas­sics Free Online

Safe­ty Last, the 1923 Movie Fea­tur­ing the Most Icon­ic Scene from Silent Film Era, Just Went Into the Pub­lic Domain

Rare 1940 Audio: Thomas Mann Explains the Nazis’ Ulte­ri­or Motive for Spread­ing Anti-Semi­tism

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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