When Does Music Become Public Domain?

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When Does Music Become Public Domain?

Public domain music isn’t protected by copyright laws. Sometimes, the artists waive those rights as soon as they release the songs to the world. Sometimes, the protections expire after years of producing income for the copyright holders.

Musical works published up to 1928 entered the public domain on January 1, 2024. Music published under a Creative Commons license could also be inside the public domain, but it’s important to check the details before you use it.

What Is Public Domain Music?

Public domain music covers several types of compositions and musical recordings in which the claim to intellectual property has either expired, been forfeited, or been waived.

Most people recognize the term public domain in reference to published works, including sheet music or musical recordings, which once were protected by copyright, but the copyright expired several decades after the artist’s death or a considerable length of time after the work’s creation. However, newer types of public domain artworks like Creative Commons licensing have increased access to music for producers and business owners.

Once copyright expires on a work like a recorded song, you can use it for any purpose without paying the publisher, the artist, or another institution.

This may not be true of every version of the song. For example, if an artist records a new arrangement of a piece of public domain music, that specific recording may be considered intellectual property. However, the original song remains in the public domain.

Copyright Law in the United States

In the United States, copyright laws protect intellectual property for artists, producers, and publishers, so they can receive fair compensation for their labor. These laws have been updated several times to prevent copying of sheet music without attribution or payment, to prevent illegal recordings of recorded songs from being distributed for financial gain, and to prevent public streaming of recorded music in ways that might benefit a business without payment to the artist.

Musical authorship copyright laws cover the publication of these:

  • Sheet music
  • Lyrics accompanying music
  • Audiovisual work
  • Sound recordings, including music or sound effects

An artist or publisher who owns the copyright to a certain piece of intellectual property, like a musical composition, can choose to manage this work in any manner they wish. This includes the following:

  • Reproduction of the work, including new recordings, public performances, or other copies
  • Distributing copies of the work to the public, including for sale
  • Creating or preparing works derivative of the original work
  • Transferring ownership, leasing or lending temporary ownership, or renting a copy of the work
  • Distributing the digital recording of the musical composition through any transmission method they choose

There are some types of intellectual property that cannot be copyrighted, including these:

  • Ideas or concepts
  • Processes, systems, or procedures
  • Principles or discoveries
  • Words, short phrases, slogans, titles, or names (although slogans and titles may fall under trademark protection)
  • Factual information
  • Works of the United States government
  • Lists without originality
  • Any work that is not in a fixed, tangible form, such as writing

How Long Does Copyright Law Last for Music?

Generally, any song or musical work published in 1928 or before in the U.S. is in the public domain. However, the rules regarding compositions are different from those involving recordings, and special rules can apply.
This chart can help you see when songs enter the public domain by their date:

Creative Commons Licenses

More creative professionals, including musicians and composers, are publishing their works as freely available to the public under a Creative Commons license.

While this is not strictly in the public domain, the Creative Commons nonprofit organization allows for creative individuals to share their work for free.

The Creative Commons website has a search feature so you can find songs or compositions that can be used for free.

How Can I Find Songs in the Public Domain?

If you are interested in determining if a song you like is in the public domain, you can search Public Domain Songs on sites like SongSelect, from CCLI. This can help you make playlists of music you like that is free for you to use in your business, film, or even advertising efforts.

However, you may not be interested in using public domain music. Instead, you want access to high-quality, trendy, and recognizable songs that your customers will love. Rather than worrying about music copyright laws, sign up with a commercial music streaming service like Cloud Cover Music.

woman listening to music


Copyright and Public Domain. The University of Chicago Copyright Information Center.

US Copyright & Music. University of Houston Libraries.

List of Public Domain Music. Public Domain Information Project.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. Cornell University Library.

Homepage. Creative Commons.

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