Public domain music

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Music is considered to be in the public domain if it meets any of the following criteria:

  • All rights have expired.
  • The authors have explicitly put a work into the public domain.
  • There never were copyrights.

If a piece of music does not fall within public domain and is under copyright, then it is unlawful to reproduce, perform, distribute, or create a new version of that music without a proper license under many countries jurisdictions.[1] Under compulsory license laws, some of these actions may in fact be lawful, but the infringing party would then be liable for any royalty the copyright holder may charge for the use of their work.


In the United States, any musical works published in 1924 or earlier, in addition to those voluntarily placed in public domain, exist in the public domain. In most other countries, music generally enters the public domain in a period of fifty to seventy-five years after the composer's death. (Public domain rights must be verified for each individual country.) It is important to note the distinction between "musical works" (sheet music and other compositions) and "sound recordings" (audio files, CDs, records), as almost every sound recording is copyrighted until 2022 unless explicitly placed into the public domain by its creators or rights holders, or it is made by an employee or officer of the United States government acting in an official capacity. Before the Music Modernization Act, the status of copyright on sound recordings in the United States from before such copyrights were nationalized, in 1972, was somewhat nebulous. The copyrights granted prior to that were considered a state issue and, even if no state law provided for it, some courts established an extra-legal common law copyright, the exact nature of which was inconsistently applied.[2]

In the European Union and Canada, sound recordings were copyrighted for fifty years until 2013. On January 1, 2013, the Beatles' single "Love Me Do" entered the public domain.[3] As of November 2013, European sound recordings are now protected for 70 years, which is not retroactive.[4] In 2015, Canada changed the copyright length to 70 years.[5]

On February 8, 2016, a court ruled that the children's song "Happy Birthday to You" was in the public domain and Warner/Chappell Music was required to pay $14 million to the song's licensees.[6]

In October 2018, President Donald Trump signed the Music Modernization Act, which will bring sound recordings into the public domain either 95 years after they were released or 120 years after they were recorded, whichever comes first.[7] Song recordings made before 1923 will expire on October 11, 2021; recordings made between 1923 and 1946 will be protected for 100 years after release; recordings made between 1947 and 1956 will be protected for 110 years; and all recordings made from 1957 to February 15, 1972 will have their protection terminate on February 15, 2067.[8]


Inherently, all historical musical works (pre-1925) are public domain.[1] Classical sheet music, for example, is widely available for free use and reproduction. Some more current works are also available for free use through public works projects such as Internet Archive. This and similar projects aim to preserve and make readily available thousands of public domain music files, many of which have been recorded by projects dedicated to recording music for public use.

Music on the Creative Commons:

The Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization created for the purpose of housing the public domain. The Commons allows copyright owners to dedicate their works to the public domain either immediately or, with the "Founders' Copyright" (originally created in the first American copyright law in 1790), can obtain an exclusive license for 14 or 28 years (if renewed) of copyright protection in exchange for selling their work to the Commons for one dollar after that protection has expired. Copyright owners can fill out an online application at in order to apply.[9]

Public domain musical works and recordings can be uploaded onto the Wikimedia Commons website.


For music, the involved rights are:

  • Authors (composers, lyricists) — e.g. CISAC members, AR: SADAIC, DE: GEMA, GB: PRS, US: SESAC, BMI, ASCAP
  • Performer
    • Mechanical rights — e.g. BIEM members (mechanical rights collecting societies), AR: SADAIC, DE: GEMA, GB: MCPS, US: HFA
      • BIEM is the international organisation representing mechanical rights societies. Mechanical rights societies exist in most countries. They license the reproduction of songs (including musical, literary and dramatic works). Their members are composers, authors and publishers and their clients are record companies and other users of recorded music. They also license mechanical aspects of the downloading of music via the Internet.
    • Live performance — DE: GVL [de]
  • Publisher — e.g. IFPI members, AR: CAPIF, GB: BPI, US: RIAA

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Copyright and Public Domain". Public Domain Information Project. Haven Sound, Inc. 2016. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-01-28. Retrieved 2013-03-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ Rolling Stone (2013-01-13). "The Beatles' 'Love Me Do' Hits the Public Domain in Europe – Rolling Stone". Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  4. ^ "A Look At Europe's New Music Copyright Law". Law360. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  5. ^ ""Canada Officially [sic] Extends Copyright Term to 70 Years"".
  6. ^ "Warner Music Pays $14 Million to End 'Happy Birthday' Copyright Lawsuit". Hollywood Reporter. 2016-02-09. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  7. ^ Stoltz, Mitch (2018-09-19). "The New Music Modernization Act Has a Major Fix: Older Recordings Will Belong to the Public, Orphan Recordings Will Be Heard Again | Electronic Frontier Foundation". Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  8. ^ "Music Modernization Act: What's In It, Why Is It In There, Is It A Good Thing?". Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  9. ^ "CC0 - Creative Commons". Retrieved 2016-10-06.

External links[edit]