In the United States, musical compositions published in 1925 or earlier are generally considered public domain. Other countries consider music to be public domain fifty to seventy-five years after the composer's death. Songs that are in the public domain do not require a license for most usage, which is why every holiday season you might hear covers of Christmas music on high rotation in stores and shopping malls.
However, different rules apply to the sound recordings of those same compositions, which can make understanding music in the public domain confusing. If you incorrectly use public domain music, it can end up being a costly exercise to clear the copyright, so it’s important to do your research before moving forward. Here, we’ll cover some basics.
What is public domain?
‘Public domain’ is a title given to creative works, including music, to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. These works no longer have copyright protection and are therefore not subject to copyright laws.
There are several ways music can be classified as public domain:
- If all rights holders agree to waive their rights.
- If the original publishing date predates all copyright laws or is ineligible for copyright protection.
- If the original copyright has expired.
As we know, the public domain classification applies to any song published before 1925 in the U.S. Musical compositions published after 1925 become public domain 70 years after the death of the final contributing composer.
Do I need a license to record a cover version of a song that is public domain?
Generally, no, you do not need a license to cover a song that is in the public domain.
However, you should be aware that sound recordings—which are different from musical compositions—are not eligible for public domain status until 2021–2067 (depending on the publishing date and location). This means that any new arrangement of a public domain song may be considered a new composition and requires permission for use of that new composition. Learn more about Master ownership.
What is the difference between musical compositions and sound recordings?
A musical composition refers to the melody, musical notes, and lyrics created by a composer, and includes sheet music. Learn more about Copyright ownership.
A sound recording refers to, you guessed it, the recording. This is the music you hear on a vinyl record, CD, cassette tape, audio file, or anything that can be played back on demand, such as a streaming service. Again, here’s a link to our Master ownership page.
How can I tell if a song is in the public domain?
There are several ways to confirm if a song is in the public domain.
- PDInfo.com has a list, based entirely on US copyright laws, of songs that qualify for public domain.
- CPDL.org has a database of free choral/vocal scores, texts, translations, and other useful information.
You can also search Wikipedia or Google to find out the original publishing date. If you do this, make sure to add the word "song" at the end of the song title. For example, if you want to search for the song "Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin, enter the search phrase "Rhapsody in Blue song" to help you locate the year the song was published. If the publication date is before January 1, 1926, the musical composition will likely be in the public domain. It is extremely important for you to do thorough research about public domain music before embarking on a recording project.
How can Songtradr help?
Songtradr buyers do occasionally request a sync license for holiday music. If you’re looking for this type of music, we can help. Some commonly used holiday songs in the public domain include:
Angels from the Realms of Glory (1867)
Angels We Have Heard on High (1700)
Auld Lang Syne (1711)
Away In a Manger (1887)
Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella (1553)
Coventry Carol (Traditional)
Deck the Halls (1800)
The First Noel (1833)
Gesu Bambino (1917)
God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (1827)
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1865)
Good King Wenceslas (1853)
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (1840)
Here We Come A-Caroling (1850)
The Holly and the Ivy (1871)
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (1872)
I Saw Three Ships (1833)
In the Bleak Midwinter (Traditional)
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (1850)
Jingle Bells (1857)
Jolly Old St. Nicholas (1870)
Joy to the World (1836)
Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming (1559)
O Christmas Tree (1800)
O Come All Ye Faithful (1751)
O Come, O Come, Emanuel (Traditional)
O Holy Night (1847)
O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868)
Once in Royal David's City (Traditional)
Silent Night (1818)
The Twelve Days of Christmas (1500)
Up on the Housetop (1870)
The Wassail Song (1600)
We Three Kings (1857)
We Wish You a Merry Christmas (1500)
What Child is This? (1865)
While Shepherds Watched (1728)
As mentioned above, any new arrangement of a public domain song may be considered a new composition and requires permission for use of that new composition.
Can I select public domain when I upload a track to Songtradr?
Yes! To categorize a song you upload to Songtradr as public domain, click into the Copyright tab to select the Public Domain option.
Learn more about how to distribute a public domain Single/EP/Album here >
If you are still unsure how to assign public domain to your song, please contact our Support team for help by submitting a request at the top of this page or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
What if I accidentally select public domain when I upload a track?
If you inaccurately claim public domain for your music, you may be liable for any royalties owed to the copyright holder. The amount due to the copyright holder would be decided at the time of settlement.
When Songtradr becomes aware of inaccurate ownership, we review any associated tracks and may deactivate the account until all claims have been resolved between the user and our Rights Department.
What is the public domain rule in countries outside the US?
Each country determines its public domain rights. In the United States, musical compositions published in 1925 or earlier are considered public domain, but in some countries, music is considered public domain fifty to seventy-five years after the composer's death.
Please click here for all details regarding copyright duration by country.
Remember though, be sure to get your own legal advice for your music licensing needs as information contained in this article does not constitute legal advice.