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Identifying Public Domain Music


Music and Lyrics and Arrangement

  • music - the melody or the rhythmical sequence of single notes
  • lyrics - words that are sung with the music
  • arrangement - specific harmony notes played with the melody

When doing public domain research, you must separately consider the PD status of the music, the lyrics, and the arrangement.  Most often you will find a piece of sheet music with a PD copyright date which includes music, lyrics, and arrangement.  The PD status for all are the same, and your research is done.  But there are many instances where music is in the public domain, but the lyrics are still copyright protected.  For example, an old tune called "Aura Lee"  is in the public domain, but the "Love Me Tender" lyrics sung to the "Aura Lee" tune by Elvis Presley will still be under copyright protection for years.  There are also instances, particularly in religious music, where an author takes ancient lyrics and writes new music--the lyrics are public domain, but the music is copyright protected.


The arrangement of a song can also be protected by copyright.  A chord progression does not constitute an arrangement, and a chord progression alone cannot be protected by copyright.  But the chord progression, harmonies, accompaniment rhythm, and musical fill phrases are together a creative work which define the style and feel of a song.  Anyone can create and copyright an arrangement of any music in the public domain.  So even though music and lyrics may be in the public domain, there frequently are numerous arrangements of any public domain work under copyright protection.

Derivative Work

When a musical work is first written down in a tangible form, the original is created.  Changes to the original create a new work which is called a derivative work.  The author of a work has exclusive rights not only to his original work, but also exclusive rights to make derivative works from the original.  But anyone can create and copyright a derivative work from anything in the public domain.   Therefore, a composition may have numerous derivative works protected by copyright even if the is original is the the public domain.   We will leave it to the attorneys to differentiate between "arrangement" and "derivative work".  What you must know is that both are protected by copyright law.


You MUST Begin with a Legitimate PD Source
The only way you can really know what is legitimately public domain is to find a source that is legitimately public domain.    If you work from a source still under copyright, you have no way to know what the derivative author changed from the original.   If you find a copy of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" with a copyright notice of 1930, it is still under copyright protection even though the song was published in 1862 and is clearly public domain.  You have no way to know if the 1930 publisher changed the melody line, changed the lyrics, added verses, created a new arrangement, or just made a new staff notation.  The 1930 copy may have great historical value, but it has no value at all for establishing public domain.  But it is not necessary that you find a copy of the original publication.  If you find a version with a copyright notice of 1895, it is a public domain source and you can freely use the music and lyrics even though this 1895 copy is probably a derivative work itself.  Actually only the lyrics published in 1862 were original and the tune was an older Sunday School Hymn called "John's Brown's Body".  Music history is nice to know, but as long as you have a public domain copy you do not have to know the song's history to use it.

You Are Ready to Use Public Domain Music

You now have selected your song and you have a legitimate source in your possession with a PD copyright date.  And if there is any doubt about PD Status, you have checked with a reference librarian or sought legal advice to make certain the song is PD.  Now how can you use the music or song?

A Public Domain Work with Copyright Protected Source

  • You CAN perform the work royalty free
  • You CAN make, publish, and copyright an arrangement or derivative work
  • You CAN use or record your arrangement or derivative work
  • You CAN use your recording for your film or video game
  • You CANNOT re-publish or sell copies of the source book.

Public Domain Work with Public Domain Source

  • You CAN do ANYTHING with the work or the source you darn well please !

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