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Royalty Free Music > Public Domain Music

An Introduction to Copyright Laws for the United States

Confirming and Documenting Public Domain Status

Creative Commons Licenses

Royalty Free Music and the Public Domain

Composers

Radio

Film

Television

Fair Use

Basic Rules of Fair Use

The Considerations of Fair Use

The Definition of Fair Use

Because copyright is by no means eternal, eventually all creative works will fall into the public domain. For music, there are very specific laws that govern when a piece or song lapses into the public domain. If the Copyright Office has no confirmation that a composer or song-writer is still living and it has been 75 years since the first copyright protection order was granted, or 100 years since the recognized creation date of the piece, it becomes public domain. The reasoning behind this occurrence is both that copyright protection has expired or the creator of the piece is presumed dead. Therefore, it would be assumed that any piece of music copyrighted in 1930 or earlier written by an American songwriter or composer presumed dead by the Copyright Office is now part of the public domain.

This may seem to be a simple way to determine what music is available for public use without concern of copyright infringement, but public domain for music is more complex than this deceivingly easy formula. Add to that the complications that the Internet has brought to music copyright and will bring to works in the future as they begin to reach the age of being able to enter the public domain and there is a truly confusing situation. Many people looking to use pieces of music that do not want to go through the painstaking process of determining their copyright dates and statuses are turning to alternatives such as low cost royalty free music , buyout music or even hiring composers and song-writers to create songs for their projects or performances. Recent laws passed to protect music and extend copyright for certain works have made it so that the latest copyright date for a piece of music to be considered public domain is 1923.

Anyone can create a version or arrangement of a public domain song, and then copyright that version under his/her name. This makes this particular arrangement of the song untouchable by anyone except the arranger, even though the original song from whence it came is still part of the public domain. The fact that re-arranging and changing a public domain song is possible complicates the concept of music and the public domain; the process of finding the original, public domain rendition of a song becomes more difficult the more people rearrange and copyright their rearrangements.

The only way to recognize the original rendering of a public domain song is to find one with a clear copyright date that is old enough to make it most definitely public domain. Therefore, if a person finds a version of a song with a copyright date from the year 1930 or earlier can be certain that this particular arrangement is safe to use without risk of infringement. If the date is any later, there is the possibility that the arranger could legally claim royalties for use of the song in any context.

To even further muddy the waters of music public domain, songs exist published after 1923 that are in the public domain. But, those looking to use any song, even if they suspect it to be public domain, that is copyrighted any less than 75 years ago should certainly consult a copyright attorney or rights clearance agency before using it for any performances or projects. Other countries in the world offer copyright protection typically for 70 years or more after the death of the author, but "international copyright" does not exist. Therefore, any song taken from outside the United States needs to be properly investigated so that the person using it is completely aware of the laws of the particular country of the song in question.

There are many resources available for those looking to discover libraries of songs and other musical compositions that fall within the public domain. Sites such as Public Domain Music and Award Winning Music provide comprehensive information about public domain music. Royalty Free Music.com also offers an extensive music library for professionals looking for alternatives to paying exorbitant fees to satisfy copyright law on original pieces of music.

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