What IS a “Public Domain” music composition?
When a songwriter reduces a song composition (lyrics, melody, musical arrangement) to writing (with pen and paper or electronically), under United States copyright law, the composition has been copyrighted by the songwriter. Most songwriters also take the next step of registering their composition with the Library of Congress, which gives the songwriter additional protection and exclusive use of their creative work. A copyright can be sold or transferred to (an)other individual(s) or a company. If the duration of copyright expires and the work is no longer protected under copyright law, the composition becomes “public domain”.
U.S. Copyright durations vary depending on the type of copyright and when the composition was originally registered. The U.S. Copyright Office explains this in Circular 15a. This chart from Cornell also explains the copyright durations in greater detail.
Is there a “Public Domain” list?
Currently, the most recent music compositions deemed to be in the public domain are music compositions that were copyrighted before 1923. You can find lists of music potentially in the public domain and one great resource for this information is the Public Domain Information Project website. However, it is the musician’s responsibility to research and prove public domain status for a work that is desired to be used (e.g., recording, performing, creating a derivative work) without paying royalties. Proof is in the form of sheet music with the year of copyright.
Is a “music composition” and a “sound recording” the same thing?
NO! You may have noticed that I very specifically have written about music compositions (aka sheet music) in the public domain. The reason is that sound recordings are not in the public domain. If you want to play a recording of a song publicly, you are required to pay royalties under copyright law.
Enjoy making music this holiday season!