Musical Public Domain Explained

Musical Public Domain Explained -

Copyright protection is used to control the use of intellectual property. Along with sheet music music, literature, movies, computer programs, graphics, and sculptures can all be copyrighted. By copyrighting their intellectual property, owners have the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform, and publicly display their works. Anyone who wants to use their works for commercial purposes must license the work. To license a work, a royalty is usually paid to the copyright holder.

But when, and how, does a work enter the public domain? Here’s a quick breakdown of everything you need to know about copyright and musical public domain.

What Parts of Music Can Be Copyrighted?

When you hear a song, two elements of the recording are protected under copyright laws. The underlying composition and lyrics are considered their own “musical work”. The sound recording of that musical work has a separate copyright and rules that go along with it. That’s how the original composers of a composition are able to see profits from recordings done by other artists. In the case of purchasing sheet music, the copyright is on the musical work itself.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

Retro drawing of home band circa 1940s

The length of a copyright term depends on where and when the work was first published. Anything created after 1978 is copyrighted for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. If the work is made by a corporate author, then it’s protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. Keep in mind that this only covers works published in the United States. If you’re unsure if a work is too old to have an active copyright, you should check a complete breakdown of copyright term lengths.

What Public Domain Means

Performer playing fender strat guitar for a large crowd

When the copyright term has expired, the copyrighted material enters the public domain. This means that everyone has the right to use, reproduce, or modify the original work for their own purposes. While it’s hard to find musical recordings that are in the public domain, there is a a constantly growing library of musical works in the public domain currently. Most, if not all classical works are not copyrighted. This is why teachers can print off most sheet music for their students without fear of repercussions.

Although it’s an uncommon practice, There are some composers who voluntarily wave the copyrights to their compositions. This is to make their music more available during their lifetime. While the composition itself may be in the public domain,  some elements of the composition may not be. That’s why it’s a good idea to stick to public domain pieces to avoid trouble.

How To Tell if Something is in the Public Domain

hal leonard music retailer

The fastest way to find out if a work is in the public domain, is to check the publication date. You can find this online by checking copyright registration and renewal records. If the work was first published before 1926 (as of 2021), the work has already entered the US public domain. Keep in mind that copyrights can be renewed, so it’s always a good idea to double check any piece that you want to use. Also, this rule only applies to works first published in the United States.

Finding Sheet Music in the Public Domain

sheet music

Since copyright laws are convoluted, finding musical compositions that are in the public domain can be a difficult task. There are several online repositories including a list of public domain music that can help with any searches. If you’re looking for scores, there’s also a site that has almost one million public domain scores and works available for downloaded.

Looking for Sheet Music in Los Angeles?

Adam’s Music is your friendly neighborhood music shop in West Los Angeles. We have a wide variety of instruments and musical equipment for sale or rent. We also offer a free, half-hour introductory music lesson over video chat. If you’ve always wanted to pick up a new instrument or brush up on your technique, now’s a perfect time! Contact us today to arrange a free online music lesson with one of our teachers.


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