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 changed 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. This makes it hard to find quality public domain music to use commercially, including in your small business.
The Difficulties of Using Public Domain Music for Commercial Purposes
Playing music legally for almost all business-related matters involves paying music license fees. 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.
What makes public domain music so hard to find and use?
Using public domain music to avoid paying fees can seem appealing but before you choose to go this route, consider these factors:
- Because many songs in the public domain are from before the 1930s, recordings may not exist.
- Music of newer genres will not be public domain music.
- Much of public domain music is unfamiliar and you could spend countless hours wading through the vast selection to find something that works.
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.
New Versions of Old Public Domain Songs
Maybe you will find some great options for your business in the public domain, but since the majority of the compositions were created before 1926, the genres may not fit your brand image. The sheet music and lyrics of songs published before 1926 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.
The Public Domain. Copyright & Fair Use, Stanford Libraries.
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.