Musicians and composers have legal ownership of any song they “publish,” through writing or recording, thanks to United States’ intellectual property laws.

However, not every single song ever written falls under copyright law in the United States.

Many compositions are in the public domain since the copyright on them has expired or was never implemented. When music is in the public domain, it is free for anyone to use for any reason, including for business or commercial reasons.

Typically, music enters the public domain when the copyright on the recording or sheet music expires, around 70 years after the original artist’s death. As of January 1, 2022, that will change to any composition before 1926.

As intellectual property laws have changed, some music never met publication requirements, though it was composed and recorded later. Typically, music in the public domain is older. In some cases, publication companies retain rights to the music by re-recording the song.

It may be best to assume that all U.S.-copyrighted music is protected until 2067. This makes it hard to find quality public domain music to use commercially, including in your small business.

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

Music for business or store environments should be utilized 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.

These are the major PROs:

  • BMI
  • ASCAP
  • SESAC
  • SOCAN (Canada)

These organizations have catalogs 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 catalog 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 Difficulties of Using Public Domain Music for Commercial Purposes

If you work with a large company, you may not worry about the cost of music you want to use for commercial purposes. You simply pay whatever royalties or licenses are required for the music you want.

Most people, businesses, or commercial ventures simply do not have that power, however. Public domain music can seem appealing in these circumstances, but it is much more complicated to find public domain music that works for commercial needs, compared to published, copyright-protected, trendy new music.

Some sites are dedicated to providing searchable databases of public domain music. These might be tagged by genre, artist, or original year of publication. Since most of these works would have been published prior to the 1930s, there may not be an existing recording of the song (and if there is, that recording might have copyright protection and you would still need to license the music).

Many current genres that consumers want to listen to are recent inventions since at least the 1960s, often later. Your customers may not be interested in the sounds of public domain music, even classical.

You must put a lot of work into finding public domain songs that suit your commercial needs. For example, if you are making a video for TikTok that advertises your business, you will need to consider which genres might work for you and then listen to several songs available in those genres. This can take hours, for a minute or less of music!

While you may find something that works for your social media presence, you do not know if this will pay off. If you run a retail outlet or restaurant, putting in hours of your time to find enough music for a playlist for your establishment is not realistic since you have many other tasks.

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 and 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.

References

The Public Domain. Copyright & Fair Use, Stanford Libraries.

PD Info: Public Domain Information Project. PD Info.

Copyright and the Public Domain. PD Info.

What You Need to Know About Music Licensing for Your Business. (March 12, 2013). Entrepreneur.

What Is a Performing Rights Organization? (April 29, 2013). DIY Musician.

List of Public Domain Music. PD Info.