It’s 2020 by George! Rhapsody in Blue is in the Public Domain

It’s a new year for Public Domain Day! On January 1, 2020, works published in 1924 became available to the public for use because their 95 year copyright term expired. This year’s class includes the George Gershwin classic Rhapsody in Blue.

For works published before 1978 by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, copyright term lengths in the United States were extended from 75 to 95 years. Therefore, with the arrival of each new year, a batch of previously protected works moves into the public domain. For example, once this act expired in 2019, works from 1923 became available to the public for the first time. Now in 2020, works from 1924 are available.

But what does it mean when a work’s copyright expires? Copyright is a bundle of rights, established in the U.S. Code, that helps authors of creative works protect their intellectual property. Rights holders have the exclusive right to reproduce, prepare derivative works, make copies and distribute, and perform and display their work.

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (1898-1937) premiered in 1924 and has remained popular ever since as a regularly performed concert work. The work has been arranged and recorded by numerous musicians. It has been used in advertising campaigns – most famously by United Airlines – and it has been arranged for different instrumentation, including organ and piano duets, as well as 1940s big band. Each of these performances, recordings, arrangements, broadcasts, and advertising uses has required permission from the Gershwin Family Trust to use the original work because the Trust still controlled the bundle of exclusive rights for the original work–that is, the printed notes of the music composition–up until 2019.

Now in 2020, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is in the public domain and available for adaptation and other creative uses. Gershwin melodies can be worked into new compositions, arranged for new instrumental (and vocal!) combinations, and adapted to an opera or Broadway musical.

In the Hamon Arts Library:

Rhapsody in Blue, facsimile edition with historical information and annotation
General Stacks ML96.5.G47 R3

The Annotated Rhapsody in Blue, Restored to Gershwin’s Original Manuscript by Alicia Zizzo
General Stacks M25.G47 R 1996

Rhapsody in Blue– piano solo
General Stacks M37 .G381 R 1924


Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin piano roll from 1925, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Columbia Jazz Band
Available online via Naxos Music Library

Rhapsody in Blue, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, ℗1983
Available online via Naxos Music Library

Blog post: Pam Pagels, Music and Theatre Librarian, Hamon Arts Library, SMU
Featured image: George Gershwin, 1898-1937, half-length portrait, standing, facing left
Image source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

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