Welcome 'Rhapsody in Blue' to the Public Domain

Gershwin's music will live on, but for hundreds of other works of art, the public domain offers a new life

Works entering the public domain this year.
A sample of works that entered the public domain Wednesday.

The new year brings new treasures for the public domain, and Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain is keeping track of what is becoming available in 2020.

The treasures this year include still lively songs such as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and classic literature such as E.M. Forster’s “Passage to India” and Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” Legendary films entering the public domain include Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr.” and a pair of films by Harold Lloyd.

Jennifer Jenkins, a professor at Duke law school and director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, made the rounds of national media channels this week explaining why the public domain is important.

As Jenkins told National Public Radio, copyright rewards artists and provides a financial model for the support of the arts and of artists. “Rhapsody in Blue” has continued to bring in significant royalties to the Gershwin state. But for most works, prolonged copyright merely means works of art fade into obscurity.

The United States is unique in granting 95-year copyrights, Jenkins said. After significant lobbying from large entertainment corporations, Congress extended copyright for 20 additional years from 75 to 95. In some cases, that extension can literally mean the death of the works, as film and audio originals disintegrate beyond repair.

“The problem is that only maybe 1 percent of works is still generating any income,” Jenkins told National Public Radio. “And so for those 99 percents of works, no one got any benefit. But the rest of us - the public, all of the future creators - we lost out on the ability, for 20 years, to freely build upon those works.”

In fact, the Center’s mission statement explains that the public domain is a “wellspring of creativity.”

“The goal of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution. But it also ensures that those rights last for a ‘limited time,’ so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations.”

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