Stephen Sondheim has written a scouringly funny response to a recent New York Times piece on Diane Paulus's new production of Porgy and Bess — or The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, as the opera has been retitled. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Sondheim's views, you have to admire the manner of their expression. If I were Paulus, I would consider booking a trip to Antarctica in an effort to get away from this sentence: "Wow, who'd have thought there was a love story hiding in Porgy and Bess that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?"
Worth noting is a comment from Joshua Cohen: "Why are we even talking about this? That is, why can't anybody do anything with Porgy and Bess that they please? Why does current American law keep a work more than 75 years old, whose last creator died more than 25 years ago, under copyright?" This is indeed the underlying issue. If Porgy and Bess were in the public domain, we'd have revisionist productions all over the place, and dunderheaded schemes for it would quickly come and go. But the Gershwin estate exercises a powerful hold over all uses of the composer's work. And, as this Copyright Primer helpfully explains (see Scenario 9), the joint action of the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 means that Porgy will pass into the public domain only in 2030. Yes, 2030 — Gershwin will have been dead for 93 years. People often blame the Walt Disney Company for these ludicrous extensions of copyright terms, but the Gershwin estate has also played an active role; in both cases, the expiration of the Rhapsody in Blue copyright was looming, first in 1980 and then in 2000. The families' cash cow has remained sacred.