Public domain music is music that is listed in the public domain registry. Basically, such songs are not copyrighted and therefore do not "belong" to anyone. That is, no one person holds copyright protections with regards to sales or usage.

Music can enter into the public domain in many ways, such as:

  • Previous copyrights have expired
  • The creator specifically entered the work into the public domain
  • Copyrights never existed for the song

Can Anyone Use Public Domain Music?

Unlike copyrighted music, anyone can use, perform, or sell public domain music. With copyrighted music, the copyright holder usually needs to authorize any sales or performances of the work. Thus, public domain music is popular for business uses, especially advertisements and campaigns, as it will help the company save money on royalty fees.

When Does Music Enter Into the Public Domain?

Under U.S. copyright laws, the copyrights last up to 28 years, plus an extra 47 years after a renewal. This is a total of 75 years, after which, the work will enter into the public domain. All music that was published before 1923 is currently in the public domain (unless newer editions have been made, which can be copyrighted). Copyright applications may also vary for songs existing before 1973 (which was a year of major reform in copyright laws).

Can I Put a Copyright on Public Domain Music?

Generally not- public domain music is already in the domain and may not be copyrighted as it appears according to the registry. What you can do, however, is alter a public domain work such that it becomes an entirely new work in its own right. If this happens, the new song can usually be copyrighted.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Public Domain Laws?

Music and public domain issues require a careful and thorough understanding of U.S. copyright laws. You may wish to hire a copyright lawyer or an intellectual property lawyer if you need help with these types of legal issues. Your attorney can provide guidance for your claim and can also represent you during a lawsuit if you need to file one.