Public domain music

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Public domain music is music to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply.[1]


The length of copyright protection varies from country to country, but music, along with most other creative works, generally enters the public domain fifty to seventy-five years after the death of the creator.[citation needed] Generally, copyright separately protects "musical compositions" (melodies, rhythms, lyrics, etc. as written in sheet music) and "sound recordings" (performances as recorded in audio files, CDs, and records).[2] Therefore, a recording of Rhapsody in Blue made in 2020 could be protected by copyright even though the underlying composition lies in the public domain.

In the United States, although case law regarding copyright abandonment is inconsistent, the law has generally assumed that copyright owners may dedicate their works to the public domain; however, this practice remains exceedingly rare.[3] The most common way for a work to enter the public domain is for its copyright term to expire—this is the case for musical compositions published prior to January 1, 1926.[4] Sound recordings, on the other hand, were generally protected until at least 2022.[4] Before 1976, sound recordings were not protected by national copyright law in the United States; instead, the protection of these works was under the jurisdiction of the state and local governments. This resulted in great variation in laws across the country, with some jurisdictions extending perpetual protection to sound recordings. Although the Copyright Act of 1976 provided federal copyright protection to sound recordings created after 1972, it otherwise left state protections in place until at least 2067.[5] The 2018 Music Modernization Act further nationalized the system by extending federal copyright protection to pre-1972 sound recordings while also shortening their term of protection.[6] Sound recordings made before 1923 entered the public domain on January 1, 2022; recordings made between 1923 and 1946 will be protected for 100 years after publication; 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.[4]

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.[7] As of November 2013, European sound recordings are now protected for 70 years, which is not retroactive.[8] In 2015, Canada changed the copyright length to 70 years.[9]

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.[10]

In November 2022, American humorist Tom Lehrer released his entire catalogue, dating back to the into the 1950's, into the public domain.[11]


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


There are several ways that a piece of music can be in the public domain:

If a piece of music does not fall within the public domain and is instead under copyright protection, most countries' laws forbid the reproduction, public performance, distribution, and creation of derivative works without the permission of the copyright holder.[16][17] Under compulsory licensing laws, some of these actions may in fact be lawful, but the infringing party would then be liable to pay royalties to the copyright holder for the use of their work.[18]


Inherently, all historical musical works (pre-1925) are public domain.[16] 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.[19]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Welcome to the Public Domain". Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center. 2013-04-03. Retrieved 2021-01-02.
  2. ^ "Copyright Registration of Musical Compositions and Sound Recordings" (PDF). US Copyright Office. Retrieved 2020-01-02.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  3. ^ Perzanowski, Aaron; Fagundes, Dave (2020). "Abandoning Copyright". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3543654. S2CID 240758886.
  4. ^ a b c "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States | Copyright Information Center". Retrieved 2021-01-02.
  5. ^ "Public Domain Sound Recordings | PD Info". Archived from the original on 2016-01-28. Retrieved 2013-03-02.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Rolling Stone (2013-01-13). "The Beatles' 'Love Me Do' Hits the Public Domain in Europe – Rolling Stone". Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  8. ^ "A Look At Europe's New Music Copyright Law". Law360. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  9. ^ ""Canada Officially [sic] Extends Copyright Term to 70 Years"". Billboard.
  10. ^ "Warner Music Pays $14 Million to End 'Happy Birthday' Copyright Lawsuit". Hollywood Reporter. 2016-02-09. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  11. ^
  12. ^ "1924 Copyrighted Works To Become Part Of The Public Domain". Retrieved 2021-01-02.
  13. ^ Fagundes, Dave; Perzanowski, Aaron (2020). "Abandoning Copyright". Case Western Reserve University School of Law - Scholarly Commons. Retrieved 2020-01-02.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. ^ Kreutzer, Till. "Validity of the Creative Commons Zero 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication and its usability for bibliographic metadata from the perspective of German Copyright Law" (PDF). Retrieved 2021-01-02.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  15. ^ "U.S. Government Works | USAGov". Retrieved 2021-01-02.
  16. ^ a b "Copyright and Public Domain". Public Domain Information Project. Haven Sound, Inc. 2016. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  17. ^ "Copyright Basics". Retrieved 2021-01-02.
  18. ^ Abrams, Howard B. (2009). "Copyright's First Compulsory License". Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal. 26 (2): 217.
  19. ^ "CC0 - Creative Commons". Retrieved 2016-10-06.

External links[edit]