Typically, when a composer or musician creates a song, they are considered to have the rights to that music.

However, not every single song ever written falls under copyright law in the United States; many compositions are in the public domain. When music is in the public domain, it means it is free for anyone to use for any reason – in a commercial, in an elevator, in a corporate presentation, online, or anywhere else.

While there is an increasingly large amount of rights-free or copyright-free music online, these songs are not automatically public domain. The artist, publisher, or copyright holder still retains the rights to their music; they simply allow for that license to be free and open until they decide otherwise.


Music in the public domain, as defined by copyright law in the United States, is very specific. It is, legally, any musical composition created and/or recorded prior to 1922.

As of January 1st, 2019, that will change to any composition before 1923.

In general, the accepted rules around public domain in the U.S. are any work of intellectual property that has no owner, whose license the owner has given freely to the public, or work whose copyright has expired. Waiting for copyrighted work, such as music from a favorite artist, to expire is impractical for most because the copyright for intellectual property spans decades. It may be best to assume that all U.S.-copyrighted music is protected until 2067.

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How Are Songs Licensed Under U.S. Copyright Law?

As a business owner, you want to play music in your store to create ambiance, keep your customers’ attention, and keep your employees focused and entertained. Unfortunately, you cannot just plug your phone into your store’s sound system and play whatever playlist you want. Nearly every song available on every streaming service is copyrighted for specific use, and in the case of most streaming services, that use is individual and private. You can legally play music in this manner at a private gathering like a party, but you cannot play it in your retail store, restaurant, corporate event, trade show, or even in a presentation for work.

Music licensing requires that you pay for certain public performances of music, including playing a recorded song for a significant group of people. You must work with performing rights organizations (PROs) who manage the copyright licenses on behalf of musicians, composers, and music publishers. When you pay them for music, they distribute that money in the form of royalties to artists or copyright holders.

The major PROs include:

These organizations have catalogues of millions of songs and manage licensing for these songs on behalf of hundreds of thousands of artists, globally. However, none of the music they manage is in the public domain, so you can use any music available in that catalogue as you see fit, including in your business, advertising for your business, as sheet music for musicians to perform in your business, or at events for your business.

The Limitations of Public Domain Music for Your Business

Maybe you will find some great options for your business in the public domain, but since the majority of the compositions were created before 1922, the genres may not fit your brand image. The sheet music and lyrics of songs published before 1922 may be available, but recordings of these songs may have been produced much later; you still have to license specific recordings of songs even if the artist is performing a song in the public domain. A song you find online may be labeled public domain, but this may be inaccurate, so it is important to do much more thorough research. You may have to download all the recordings yourself, then put them in your own music player, rather than using a simple service to create a playlist.

Commercial streaming music services manage licensing on your behalf, so you can use a program similar to a personal streaming service. These commercial services take into consideration music quality, retail space size, speaker quality, store locations, times of day when music will be played, and many other factors.