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Royalty Free Music > Public Domain Music > Confirming and Documenting Public Domain Status

*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 of the stringency of copyright laws in the United States, individuals should only use public domain music freely after it has clearly been identified as being truly in the public domain. This means that musicians and artists should only use the piece of music if the proof comes from a legitimate and credible source. If not, they might want to seek alternative pieces of music or seek opportunities through reputable royalty free music companies.

What constitutes a credible and legitimate source? The best source to use is a copy of the work with a copyright date that is old enough to qualify it as being in the public domain. Sources, almost every time, will be in the form of copied or original sheet music or a songbook. No one can just go by what he thinks he may know when it comes to music in the public domain - the result could very well be devastating royalty fees. Any suspicions about a song being in the public domain are only suspicions until verified by an attorney that specializes in copyright law. Since there is really no true proof when it comes to public domain status, the best proof someone can find is the best that can be done. And this proof comes in the form of a concrete copy of the music in question. Those truly worried and uncertain about public domain status would be better off using alternative, low cost music such as royalty free music or copyright free music offered by reputable companies such as Award Winning Music . Companies like this one and others offer many selections of original royalty free music music, but also other instantly recognizable pieces of classical music guaranteed to be free of on-going royalty fees. If a person still needs to prove public domain status of a work he is set on using however, there are very important pieces of information to consider.

Currently, the latest copyright date that qualifies a piece of music as being in the public domain is 1922. Therefore, the date on the piece of music one intends to use is that date or earlier. While there are songs in existence with dates later than 1922 already in the public domain, the process of identifying them is extremely difficult. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 changed public domain dramatically. Previously, copyright protection on items registered before 1/1/78 was 75 years. The extension increased the time on some music to 95 years. Thankfully, U.S. works copyrighted in 1922 or earlier were not affected by this change, even though many are not yet 95 years old. However, because of this Act, no new works will enter the public domain until January 2019.

The following is a list of LEGITIMATE sources that will prove a piece of music to be in the public domain:

  1. Original sheet music with the Public Domain copyright date clearly displayed.
  2. A photocopy of the sheet music with the Public Domain copyright date affixed that the person photocopied himself.
  3. A photocopy of the sheet music with the clear Public Domain copyright on it, given to the person by another trusted individual or company.
  4. A digital copy of the sheet music with the Public Domain copyright date printed on the individual's printer from a reliable website.
  5. A digital copy of the sheet music with a Public Domain copyright date printed from a CD or DVD that was published by a trusted entity.

The following is a list of QUESTIONABLE sources for proving Public Domain status:

  1. A photocopy of the sheet music found without seeing the original sheet music.
  2. Anything from an Internet website about which nothing concrete is known. In other words, any piece of music taken from a website with no credentials or that does not note its sources.

The following list contains INVALID forms of public domain proof:

  1. An original or a photocopied version of sheet music with no copyright date.
  2. The name of the song on a public domain music list.
  3. Any piece of music with no copyright date that looks very old and has been ripped from a book that also has no copyright dates.
  4. A photocopy of a piece of sheet music from an unknown source, even if it has a Public Domain copyright date.
  5. A person's word, even someone's known or trusted, that a song is in the Public Domain.
  6. An email from anyone stating that a song is Public Domain.

If a piece of music can be genuinely attributed to the Public Domain by any of the above methods, then it is most likely free to use it. However, no individual can rely solely on the above without seeking legal counsel, and it is highly recommended for anyone looking to use a song that he seeks legal counsel before proceeding. Otherwise, royalty free music or other types of free or low cost music might be a better option.

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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