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Royalty Free Music > Music News > How Can I Find Out When a Song Copyright is up for Grabs?

March 28th, 2008

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We often get questions at from those looking to find out information about how, beyond the world of royalty free music Copyright Law works when it comes to those trying to not only license music but also use music that has been licensed by other copyright holders.

One of the most common inquiries we get is, "How can I find out when a song copyright is up for grabs? Is it like renewing a Web site domain name?"

The answer is, "Not exactly." In fact, it's fairly complicated. And a lot of music we think might be up for grabs is still protected. Before we get into the subject in full, remember that is based in the United States. Therefore, we'll be answering this question based on U.S. Copyright Law (and based on those that license music in the United States). If you are outside the U.S., International Copyright Law applies and is slightly different. Of course, there are other rules about licensing music depending on which specific country you are in as well, so make sure if you decide not to use royalty free music or some other form of copyright free music or stock music you are consulting professional legal advice.

If you are a professional looking for flexible, easy solutions for your music needs, there really is no easier option than copyright free music and stock music. But of course there are times when you need to know how to use other types of music for your soundtrack.

So what is the standard length of copyright protection on a specific song, and how do we know when it's safe to use free of charge?

Here's an illustration of a copyrighted song that might surprise you. Did you know that the song "Happy Birthday" - the very one sung at every organized or disorganized birthday party you've ever been to since you were born - is copyrighted and that Time Warner currently owns the rights to it? That means every time you sing "Happy Birthday"

1. at a place open to the public,
2. among a large number of people that are not family, friends or loved ones

you are considered to be giving a public performance of the song and thus are committing copyright infringement. "Happy Birthday" was actually composed originally in 1893 but not officially published until 1935. It is protected through 2030 and earns approximately a million dollars every year in royalties. Time Warner bought the copyright on the song ten years ago for $12 million based on what the expected value of its royalties, which was a great deal considering the company also got an additional twenty years worth of royalties when they extended the term.

With this in mind, you might be sweating over all the songs you have considered using or are using in your current projects that are not copyright free music or royalty free music and have not been purchased or are not offered as part of a subscription service in which you are already participating. Or you might think that a specific song you'd love to own will probably never be available (or affordable!) in your lifetime ...

The History of U.S. Copyright Law

U.S. Copyright Law is a statutory plan for intellectual property that goes back as far as the U.S. Constitution, well over 200 years ago. Though the Founding Fathers of the United States obviously never thought that technology would change the way the process required to license music so dramatically, they did establish a fairly well-designed plan of protection that is still used today. It gives U.S. Congress the right to give authors and investors exclusive rights to use their music (and other forms of art and intellectual property as well) for limited, but actually quite lengthy periods of time.

The first right to license music was the Copyright Act of 1790. The law was revised in 1976, which is essentially the basic structure still used today. This law determines that the author of a copyrighted work has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, publicly display and perform the work or any versions of the work and the sole permission to grant others the right to use it during the period of time the work is protected. This means, simply put, that the owner/author of a copyrighted song can also prevent others from using the song without permission and sue those that violate these terms.

The Term of Copyright

The answer to the question of figuring out when copyright on a song that is not stock music, royalty free music or copyright free music lies in the term of copyright, according to U.S. Copyright Law. The term of copyright on a piece of music essentially depends on a few factors, one of the most important and basic being when it was first created or published. For works created after January 1, 1978 the term of copyright on a work is the life of the author plus 70 years. For works that were created for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous pieces of music, the term is 120 years from creation or 90 years from first publication (whichever preceded).

Those works created before 1978 with terms of copyright that have not expired are protected for 95 years from the time of first publication. And finally, to make things more confusing, works published before 1933 are up for grabs, because the term of copyright for songs published before 1978 was 75 years. And songs published before this time might still be covered by copyright because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended the length of copyright by twenty years. While this law was passed with the help of Sonny Bono, it really was sparked by the Disney Company; the company strongly pushed this law to passing because it was worried the copyrights on Walt Disney's famous cartoon characters - Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, etc. - were going to expire (and they would have at the end of the 20th century) along with many other works published in the 1920s, along with "Happy Birthday" (before it was picked up by Time Warner).

As you can see, Copyright Law is pretty complex, so the best bet to figuring out whether a song is copyrighted or not is to seek the help of a seasoned attorney specializing in Copyright Law. Of course, if you are looking for great music to add to your important projects, royalty free music, stock music and copyright free music like that provided by and other high-quality providers is always a safe bet. It offers you flexible options as well as the freedom of never having to license music again!

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