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Royalty Free Music > Public Domain Music > Basic Rules of Fair Use

*Disclaimer: All information provided on this page is based on Royalty Free and the company Award Winning Music's interpretation of prevailing legislation and best practice. The company gives no guarantee that the information or guidance on this page is completely accurate. The information and guidance does not constitute legal or professional advice, and should not be used as such. All implied guarantees or conditions are excluded, to the maximum extent permitted by law. Award Winning Music and Royalty Free are not responsible or liable for any damage or loss experienced as a result of viewing or following the information found on this page.

Because situations where fair use applies to works protected by music copyright law can be difficult to determine, experts have devised a list of general rules that can help interpret the Fair Use Act and its conditions and apply it to various creative works. The best bet for professionals looking to use music and other art-works is to either pay royalties to use copyright-protected background music , use public domain music or other types of legitimate free music. But the following rules will help many determine that they are using music or other creative works in a way that is protected by the Fair Use Act. Only a copyright lawyer or the United States Copyright Office can make the final decision on whether or not the fair use act applies, but these guidelines will at least assist in the process.


The Fair Use Act gives protection to registered libraries and permits them to photocopy certain works for use in classrooms and as research materials or for any other not-for-profit purpose. The Fair Use Act protects libraries, archives and all employees from liability that typically applies to unauthorized, unsupervised use of photocopy machines and other such devices as the library as long as the equipment clearly displays a notice that making a copy for any for-profit endeavor might be subject to copyright infringement. These notices do not have any required format, although many libraries over the years have decided to conform to use similar agreed-upon language. Of course, photocopying public domain music, as long as the sheet music is clearly within the public domain based on the publication date is legal, regardless of the intended use. This stipulation is part of Section 109 of the official Copyright Act.


The following are acceptable uses of music that is not considered public domain music under the Fair Use Act. Other uses not covered here might be acceptable, but these are just some examples:

  1. An individual can copy sheet music already purchased in an emergency for an impending performance if it is not available by any other means, as long as replacement copies are purchased as soon as possible following the performance.
  2. For academic or research purposes, more than one copy of musical work excerpts can be made as long as these parts do not include a piece of the work that is performable, such as an entire movement or an aria of an opera. The amount copied cannot exceed 10% of the whole work and not more than one copy per student or per researcher. To add to this, as long as it is for academic use and not performance, a single copy of an entire part of a piece of music can be made as long as it has been confirmed to be out of print. This single copy can also be made for a teacher researching for a class.
  3. Printed copies already bought can be edited or made simpler as long as the work is not completely changed. Lyrics similarly cannot be changed or added if they do not already exist.
  4. One copy of recordings of student performances can be made as long as these recordings are only used for rehearsal or study, and these copies can be kept and catalogued by a teacher or school.
  5. One copy of a tape, CD or cassette of copyrighted music can be made from recordings, including background music and classical music recordings that are part of the school's music library and legally owned can be made in order to create educational exercises and listening exams. Of course, a different copyright applies to the sound recording, and this stipulation only covers the sheet music on which the recording is based.

The following are definitely not acceptable uses for music that is not within the public domain and is protected by music copyright law:

  1. Individuals cannot make copies in order to make their own anthologies, compilations or other types of collaborative works.
  2. Copies of music pieces cannot be made into workbooks or other types of exercises or tests that require students to write directly on the material.
  3. Copies cannot be made generally for performances or in place of purchasing the sheet music directly.
  4. Copying a piece of music without including the original copyright notice is not acceptable.


Television broadcasts, including any background music can be used as part of off-air projects. Copyrighted television programs transmitted by any means at no cost to the general public by a television station that is licensed is permitted under the Fair Use Act. However, the Act does not cover daily network news programs, public domain television programs or programs that give a license to non-profit educational institutions without charging a fee (public television initiatives). As long as the program and broadcast is used for off-air research or educational purposes that do not generate revenue, the Fair Use Act applies.


The Fair Use Act as it applies to education and research is similar to its application to libraries and archives. Faculty and staff of colleges, universities and schools can photocopy copyrighted music that is not public domain music and other creative or research materials to use as part of their teaching curriculum. Of course, works published before January 1, 1978 that were never copyrighted are part of the public domain, and thus can be copied without restriction and without consideration of the stipulations of fair use. Those works that were once copyrighted, but did not renew their copyright protection fall into a similar category, and can be copied and used for any purpose. Unpublished works might be protected by copyright law, and therefore those wishing to use these even for educational purposes must secure permission from the U.S. Copyright Office. All government works are considered part of the public domain and can also be freely copied. Copyrighted works, according to the Fair Use Act can be copied and used as long as they are used in classroom teaching, research or as part of library reserves intended for study.


The Internet has complicated Copyright Law, but the law is constantly changing to meet the growing demands of technology. Digital music recordings that have been determined to be a part of the public domain music collection are not protected under Copyright Law and may be used for any private or personal purpose, including as part of non-profit programs and any classes. Digital recordings and images found online and definitely protected by copyright law can be used as part of non-profit and educational projects as long as the entire work is not used. The important thing for individuals to remember with all online content is that it is not free simply because it is simple to obtain and easily downloadable or copied.

The above guidelines are not hard and steadfast, but provide a starting point for those looking to determine how the Fair Use Act applies to any background music or other types of music or creative works they intend to use as part of non-profit or educational programs.

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





Fair Use

Basic Rules of Fair Use

The Considerations of Fair Use

The Definition of Fair Use

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