Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Musical Works of George Gershwin Have Not Entered The Public Domain.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

George Gershwin

George Gershwin is one of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century. This remarkably talented composer of jazz standards (I Got Rhythm - seen at the bottom of this article), folk operas (Porgy And Bess - including Summertime, performed here by Ella Fitzgerad and Louis Armstrong) and jazz influenced classical compositions (Rhapsody In Blue) was extremely productive, with a major artistic presence in New York, Paris and on Broadway. This was the beginning of the Jazz era, and Gershwin's unique talent allowed a form that had recently originated in the hands of Jelly Roll Morton and The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, to pass over into the highest musical venues of American culture. His death at a mere 39 years old deprived the age of one of its most important names - seventy years and one week ago.

Gershwin had paid such close attention to his earnings and intellectual property that he died in-estate and his works reverted to the ownership of his mother. The family (admittedly including his brother Ira with whom he collaborated) founded The Gershwin Estate, an organisation who have been extremely pro-active in dictating terms of use for any of the brothers' varied properties (which are of astronomical financial value).

Under normal international copyright agreements (The Berne Convention) his work would be reverting into the public domain this year, however due to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (a particularly disgusting piece of protectionist legislation passed in the US in 1997, lobbied for by such upstanding organisations as Disney Corporation, Arkham House and The Gershwin Estate) this work — along with all other work copyrighted after 1923 — will remain under copyright until 2019 at the earliest, after which it will dribble into the public domain over the following 15 years. This is, of course, assuming that another arbitrary cut-off on copyright terms does not pass through congress in the intervening years.

Little Man, What Now? regards this act as theft from public ownership and fundamentally unconstitutional (copyright law applies in respect of the country of origin, international law is irrelevant, we are therefore all stuck with American laws for these properties). There is no economic growth argument for restricting usage of information for such a grotesque period after the death of the author, there is however a very strong self interest argument by copyright owners to lobby for extension. We are committed to publicising the most valuable of these materials as they are stolen from public ownership, a tradition begun with our infamous Lovecraft Day.

Gershwin was a master, it is a pity that all those who wish to publicly perform his works must render unto Caeser...

Gershwin performs I Got Rhythm in a remarkably similar suit to that shown above, aren't you supposed to be a multi-millionaire?


Shades of Grey said...

You're mining an interesting seam here. Have you been following the Adelphi Charter stuff from the RSA?

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Shamed as I am to admit it, I haven't been following the Adelphi Charter stuff, and after looking it up I am indeed intrigued...

So much of this debate revolves around American IP and in the yank public sphere I'd missed what the Royal Society Of Arts had been up to... This bares investigation (do we even have a 'Fair Use' convention in this country?)


Indignado said...

This is depressing. The 70 year lapse is already excessive. It is, indeed, a theft. They steal from those musicians who struggle to make a dime by entertaining others while they make millions out of something that doesn't belong to them.