Free music

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The crossed out copyright symbol with a musical note on the right hand side is the free music symbol, signifying a lack of copyright restrictions on music. It may be used in the abstract, or applied to a sound recording or musical composition.

Free music or libre music is music that, like free software, can freely be copied, distributed and modified for any purpose. Thus free music is either in the public domain or licensed under a free license by the artist or copyright holder themselves, often as a method of promotion. It does not mean that there should be no fee involved. The word free refers to freedom (as in free software), not to price.[1]

The Free Music Philosophy[1] generally encourages creators to free music using whatever language or methods they wish. A Free Music Public License (FMPL)[2] is available for those who prefer a formal approach. Some free music is licensed under licenses that are intended for software (like the GPL) or other writings (the GFDL). But there are also licenses especially for music and other works of art, such as EFF's Open Audio License, LinuxTag's Open Music License, the Free Art license and some of the Creative Commons Licences.


Before the advent of copyright law in the early 18th century and its subsequent application to music compositions first, all music was "free" according to the definitions used in free software or free music, since there were no copyright restrictions. In practice however, music reproduction was generally restricted to live performances and the legalities of playing other people's music was unclear in most jurisdictions. Copyright laws changed this gradually so much so that in the late 20th century, copying a few words of a musical composition or a few seconds of a sound recording, the two forms of music copyright, could be considered criminal infringement.[3]

In response, the concept of free music was codified in the Free Music Philosophy[1] by Ram Samudrala in early 1994. It was based on the idea of Free Software by Richard Stallman and coincided with nascent open art and open information movements. Up to this point, few modern musicians distributed their recordings and compositions in an unrestricted manner, and there was no concrete rationale as to why they did it, or should do it.[citation needed]

The Free Music Philosophy used a three pronged approach to voluntarily encourage the spread of unrestricted copying, based on the fact that copies of recordings and compositions could be made and distributed with complete accuracy and ease via the Internet. First, since music by its very nature is organic in its growth, the ethical basis of limiting its distribution using copyright laws was questioned. That is, an existential responsibility was fomented upon music creators who were drawing upon the creations of countless others in an unrestricted manner to create their own. Second, it was observed that the basis of copyright law, "to promote the progress of science and useful arts", had been perverted by the music industry to maximise profit over creativity resulting in a huge burden on society (the control of copying) simply to ensure its profits. Third, as copying became rampant, it was argued that musicians would have no choice but to move to a different economic model that exploited the spread of information to make a living, instead of trying to control it with limited government enforced monopolies.[4]

The Free Music Philosophy was reported on by diverse media outlets including Billboard,[5] Forbes,[6] Levi's Original Music Magazine,[7] The Free Radical,[8] Wired[9][10] and The New York Times.[11] Along with free software and Linux (a free operating system), copyleft licenses, the explosion of the Web and rise of P2P, the cementing of mp3 as a compression standard for recordings, and despite the efforts of the music industry, free music became largely the reality in the early 21st century.[12] Organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons with free information champions like Lawrence Lessig were devising numerous licenses that offered different flavours of copyright and copyleft. The question was no longer why and how music should be free, but rather how creativity would flourish while musicians developed models to generate revenue in the Internet era.[4][13][14]

Record labels and websites distributing free music[edit]

Notable bands distributing their music under free or close-to-free conditions[edit]

Note that some licenses, such as CC-BY-NC, are not free by definition.[19] However, works under these licenses are listed here as being related to the topic.

Title Licenses
Nine Inch Nails The Slip CC BY-NC-SA
Severed Fifth Creative Commons
Twisted Helices[21]
Brunette Models
Kimiko Ishizaka Creative Commons Zero license – Public Domain[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Samudrala, Ram (1994). "The Free Music Philosophy". Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  2. ^ Samudrala, Ram (2011). " "The Free Music Public License". Retrieved 13 September 2011.[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ "NET Act: 17 U.S.C. and 18 U.S.C. as amended (redlined)". U.S. Department of Justice. Archived from the original on 14 January 2012.
  4. ^ a b Schulman BM. The song heard 'round the world: The copyright implications of MP3s and the future of digital music. Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 12: 3, 1999. Archived 2012-04-09 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Reece D. Industry grapples with MP3 dilemma. Billboard, July 18 1998.
  6. ^ Penenberg A. Habias copyrightus. Forbes, July 11 1997.
  7. ^ Durbach D. Short fall to freedom: The free music insurgency. Levi's Original Music Magazine, November 19, 2008 Archived June 1, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Ballin M. Unfair Use. The Free Radical 47, 2001
  9. ^ Oakes C. Recording industry goes to war against web sites. Wired, June 10 1997.
  10. ^ Stutz M. They (used to) write the songs. Wired, June 12 1998.
  11. ^ Napoli L. Fans of MP3 forced the issue. The New York Times, December 16 1998.
  12. ^ Just T. Alternate Kinds of Freedom. Archived 2014-09-03 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Samudrala R. The future of music. 1997
  14. ^ Story of a Revolution: Napster & the Music Industry. MusicDish, 2000
  15. ^ "About Audition Records". Audition Records. Archived from the original on 25 January 2011.
  16. ^ ", musique libre – Les licences". Archived from the original on 11 June 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  17. ^ Simon Trask. "Creative Commons, Copyright & The Independent Musician". Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  18. ^ "Loca Records". Loca Records. Archived from the original on 6 March 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  19. ^ Creative Commons NonCommercial, any version (#CC-BY-NC)
  20. ^ "RIPIntro". 22 January 2008. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  21. ^ "The Twisted (Helices) page – in 1993 it was called "The Twisted Page" and it made sense – exploratory music". Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  22. ^ Ishizaka, Kimiko (n.d.). "The Open Goldberg Variations". Retrieved 15 June 2012.

External links[edit]