We all love our music. But if there’s one thing we love better than a piece of music, it’s a free piece of music. The public domain could be considered the governments attempt at satisfying that want. Let me start, however, by saying that if you are expecting to get music by some of your favorite contemporary artists for free, then you can leave now. This is not what the public domain is all about.

The Public Domain in a Nutshell

The term “public domain” applies to all works, (music, books, art, etc.) that are no longer (or never were) covered by copyright law.  A work will typically enter the public domain in one of two ways.

1. Copyright runs out

Generally, when a work is published, the author (or artist, as it may be) puts it under copyright. This means that the author retains all rights to the work. You are not allowed to modify, distribute or sell the work with permission. This also applies to derivative works, so cheap knock-offs are not allowed.

This runs out eventually though. In each country the rules are different. Below is a chart that will tell you if a work is in the public domain in the US. Please note. Just because a work is in the public domain in one country does not mean that it is in the public domain in another country. Check your own countries laws before making any assumptions. However, if the work was published pre-20th century, you can make a pretty good bet that it is in the public domain. Below is an infographic with information on when works enter the public domain in the U.S.

2. Author puts work in public domain

An author (or artist) can, of course, choose to put a work in the public domain. Although this is less common, it is not unheard of.

When a work is in the public domain, the original creator retains no rights to it. Anyone can distribute, adapt (adaptions may covered by copyright), rewrite, or even sell the work in whatever way they want to. No limitations. Now naturally, this can make some people a lot of money. But if they got it for free, you can get it for nothing too.

So how does this apply to music?

Because music is covered under copyright law, all the rules apply to it as well. A song itself goes into the public domain just like any other work. For that reason, you can distribute the sheet music to certain songs however you want. For example, I am currently learning to play the song “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert on the piano. I was able to download the sheet music for free because the piece is over 180 years old, clearly old enough to be in the public domain. If I wanted, I could even make a recording and sell it because the song is in the public domain.

Interesting fact: The text of “Happy Birthday” is copyrighted. The copyright is owned by the Warner Music Group, who requires anyone who wishes to use the song commercially (in a movie or concert for example) to pay royalties. In 2008 alone Warner brought in $2 million in royalties. The copyright is set to expire in 2017 in Europe and 2030 in the US.

This copyright law only applies to the song itself. Recordings of the song are still covered under copyright law no matter when they were created. The rules, however, are slightly confusing. Up until 1972, sound recordings were not covered under US federal copyright law. Each recording was protected under a state’s individual laws. So it depends on each state. Congress did pass a law in 1972 that put in expiration date on state laws… 95 years later. All state laws on recordings expire in 2067. As for recordings made after 1972, it is 75 years after publication date.

In the UK, it is much simpler. Recordings are covered 50 years after their creation or publication date. If a recording is not published in the first 50 years after it is recorded, it lapses into the public domain. If the recording was published in those first 50 years then the recording is in the public domain until 50 years after that date.

This unfortunately means that the original recording of Another One Bites the Dust will not be free to download (at least legally) until 2075. And if the zombie apocalypse comes, it may never happen.

A Few Websites for Public Domain Music:

Public Domain 4 U: http://publicdomain4u.com
Musopen: http://musopen.org
Archive.org: http://archive.org

Any of your favorite songs that are in the public domain? I would love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below!

Categories: Other
  • Trevor

    As the music bubble continues to implode, copyright laws with do nothing but hinder works from being shared in the future. The current copyright law does not fit the future. I could rant, but will not right now. Good post.

    • http://soundcalledmusic.com Patrick Wells

      Thanks for the comment. I believe you are right. Would you be interested in writing a guest post about this?