Public domain music is often older recordings. As of January 2022, music from 1926 and earlier is available in the public domain. However, some details of copyright law mean that later compositions can be accessed in the public domain, as they did not adhere to changes in federal laws.
Music published under a Creative Commons license, which is a recent online form of legal protection allowing access to users for free, can also be used in certain circumstances.
Public domain essentially covers creative works that are no longer protected by intellectual property laws.
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 1925 or before in the US is in the public domain. As of January 1, 2022, musical compositions from 1926 and earlier will be in the public domain.
Additionally, the following rules apply to musical copyright for other years:
- Music from 1926 to 1977: If songs or musical compositions were published without a copyright notice, they are considered in the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities.
- Music from 1978 to March 1, 1989: If the song, recording, or composition was published without a copyright notice and/or subsequent registration within five years of the publication, these works are in the public domain because of failure to comply with required formalities. If the song was subsequently registered within five years, current copyright standards apply, which are retention of copyright for up to 70 years after the author’s death. In the case of corporate intellectual property, the copyright expires 95 years after publication or 120 years after its creation, whichever comes first.
- Music from 1926 to 1963: If the composition was published with notice but failed to renew copyright, these works are in the public domain due to copyright expiration. If the copyright owner did renew the copyright, that intellectual property is protected until 95 years after its publication date.
Modern standard copyright for creative works and intellectual property, including musical compositions, song recordings, and songs, means that the author retains property rights for their entire life, plus 70 years after their death. When intellectual property is created by a corporation, company, organization, or other business entity rather than a single individual, that intellectual property ownership is maintained for either 95 years after initial publication or 120 years after the property’s creation, whichever comes first.
For sound recordings, copyright law has changed drastically. Any work published prior to February 15, 1972 is subject to individual state common law protections. These will enter the public domain officially on February 15, 2067.
Otherwise, sound recordings have slightly different times for copyright protection:
- Recordings from 1923 to 1946: These are protected for 100 years after their first publication.
- Recordings from 1947 to 1956: These are protected for 110 years after their initial publication.
- Recordings from 1957 to February 14, 1972: These will enter the public domain on February 15th, 2067.
- Recordings 1972 to 1978: Published with notice, these are protected for 95 years after publication. Without notice, these works are considered public domain.
- Recordings 1978 to 1989: With notice, standard copyright of 70 years after the author’s death or 120 years after publication applies. Without notice, these works are considered in the public domain.
- After 1989: These works are protected by copyright law and must wait until the expiration date of copyright to be incorporated into the public domain.
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.
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.