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Proof of Public Domain

You should use a public domain composition only if you have proof of public domain from a legitimate source.  If you do not have a legitimate source in your possession, there is no way you can be certain that the music you use is in the public domain.  A legitimate source is a tangible copy of the work with a copyright date old enough to be in the public domain.  Sources are almost always either an original or a copy of a book or sheet music. You cannot just "know" a song is in the public domain or just "see" the name of the song in a book, on a list, or even on this web site.  An attorney will tell you that there really is no such thing as absolute "proof of public domain".  But you must protect yourself with the best "proof" you can find.  If you do not do your own research and obtain a legitimate public domain copy of each work you use, you can easily make errors which could result in your having to pay substantial royalties.

Copyright Date Old Enough to Be in the Public Domain

referred to as "PD Copyright Date"on this web site

  • United States Only -  copyright notice of 1922 or earlier
  • Outside the United States - determined by the copyright law of each individual country where you play to use the work.

For sheet music, the copyright date is usually shown on the first page of the music notation.  If you are obtaining copies of original sheet music as proof of  PD, you should get a photocopy of the cover page as well as the actual pages of music notation.  While getting a copy of the cover page may not be absolutely necessary,  you may not be able to show whether the copy was made from sheet music or from a book of music without a copy of the cover page.  It is always best to be able to absolutely identify your PD source.


For books there are two applicable copyright dates:
   1. The copyright date of the book shown on the book's Title Page
   2. The copyright date of each composition included in the book
If the Title Page has a PD copyright date, then all the music in the book is in the public domain--even if there are no copyright dates for each musical piece.   However, if the Title Page shows a copyright date of 1923 or later, only the works in the book which have a PD copyright date are in the public domain.  If you are obtaining copies of an original book as proof of PD, you should get a copy of the book's Title Page as well as the actual pages of music notation.  Again, you need the copy of the book's Title Page to absolutely identify the PD source you are using.

Source and Public Domain

It is quite possible that a book can be a legitimate source for proof of public domain, but the book itself is NOT in the public domain.  A legitimate source may not be public domain itself  A book with a 1930 copyright notice might include a work with a 1900 copyright notice.  Dover Books currently publishes a wonderful series of books containing reprints of old music.  In  both of these instances, works included in the book are in the public domain, but the actual source book is still protected by copyright.  The work--the music or lyrics or arrangement--are in the public domain and you may use them.  You MUST clearly understand the distinction between the public domain status of a work and the public domain status of the source of the work.

Legitimate Sources for Proof of Public Domain

  • Original Book with PD copyright date on the Title Page
  • Original Sheet Music with PD copyright date
  • Photocopy of a Book or Sheet Music with PD copyright date which you photocopied yourself
  • Photocopy of a Book or Sheet Music with PD copyright date from a person or company you trust
  • Digital copy of a Book or Sheet Music with a PD copyright date printed on your printer from an internet web site you know to be reliable
  • Digital copy of a Book or Sheet Music with a PD copyright date printed from a CD or DVD published by a person or company you trust

Questionable Sources for Proof of Public Domain

  • Photocopy of sheet music or photocopy of pages of a book given you without your seeing the actual book
  • Photocopy of sheet music with or without cover page without your seeing the actual sheet music
  • Photocopy of a book without copy of Title Page - you cannot positively identify the source without the title page.
  • Anything from an internet web site you know nothing about

Invalid Sources for Proof of Public Domain

  • Original or photocopy of a Book or Sheet Music with no copyright dates
  • The name of the song on a list of public domain music
  • An old-looking book with no title page and no copyright dates anywhere in the book
  • An old-looking page of music with no copyright date ripped from an old-looking book
  • Photocopy of a Book or Sheet Music when you do not know who made the photocopy
  • An individual telling you that a song is PD, even if you know and trust the individual.
  • An email from anyone telling you a song is PD

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