List of Public Domain Songs
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Public Domain?
Anything which legally has no owner is said to be in the public domain. Once there was even public domain land, but now public domain is pretty much limited to intellectual property where copyright protection has expired or the creator has formally given his work to the public. There is no "official" list of public domain property because something becomes public domain due to the absence of any law giving anyone claim to ownership. In effect, if no one on this entire planet can find any law which gives them legal claim to a property, then that property is in the public domain.
What is intellectual property?
Intellectual property is any product of the human intellect where ownership can be claimed and protected by law. This includes creative works such as music, lyrics, books, poetry, or art as well as more typical business applications such as inventions, chemical and biological advances, or computer software systems. Intellectual property is most often protected by copyright, patent, and trademark laws.
What is a Copyright?
A copyright is a "limited duration monopoly" provided by the U.S. Constitution to authors, inventors, and other creative individuals. Copyright law is written to encourage the growth of knowledge by giving authors and artists limited time exclusive rights to use and profit from their creations. If a song or book or anything else is under copyright protection, you cannot use it without the author's permission. Usually a music copyright owner will charge fees called "royalties" in exchange for permission to use his music.
What can be protected by copyright law?
Any original creative work expressed in a tangible form can be protected by copyright. In addition to music and lyrics, this includes items such as books, letters, paintings, movies, television programs, computer software, photographs, and video games. Ideas and facts cannot be protected by copyright law, although they can in some instances be protected under patent or trademark law.
Does the title of a song have copyright protection?
A title cannot be protected under copyright law, and there are many songs with the same or very similar titles. Titles can occasionally be protected by trademark law when the title can be proven to be directly identified with a product or organization.
Do I have to work from a copy of a work with a 1922 or earlier copyright date?
Any work in the public domain can be freely used by any one in any manner they choose. There is no law which requires you to have any proof of public domain in order to use a public domain work. The problem is that it is virtually impossible to securely determine that a work is in the public domain in the USA unless you have a copy of the work with a copyright date of 1922 or earlier. Most recognizable public domain songs have hundreds of arrangements of the song which are still under copyright protection, and in many instances the arranger has significantly changed the melody or lyrics from public domain versions. So to be confident you are truly using a public domain work, you need to find a public domain version of the work before you begin your project. A reprint from a source you trust or a photocopy from a library are most adequate. You then work exclusively from your public domain source copy to change and arrange the song as you like to create the music you need for your project.
What happens if I accidentally use a piece of copyright protected music?
You would probably receive a "cease and desist" letter from the copyright holder advising that you have infringed on his copyright. You would them present your PD research findings and attempt to reach an amicable agreement with the copyright holder. If you had done your research properly and had good reason to believe you had a legal right to use the music, hopefully the copyright holder would accept the most reasonable royalties possible for the use you made of his song. However, making an honest error in no way protects you from paying royalties due to a copyright holder. After you have already used the song, you are pretty much dependent on the copyright holder's mercy when royalties are assessed. If there is any doubt about rights to a song, you should always obtain clearance through an attorney or rights clearance organization prior to any usage.
I play and sing at a local bar. Can I get in trouble if I perform popular music?
It is the responsibility of the bar owner to have proper licenses for the music used in his bar. For public performance, the facility and not the performer is responsible for music licensing.
I found a piece of PD Sheet Music on the internet. Can I download it and use it? Can I sell it?
If someone places a piece of PD sheet music on their web site, it has been published and you have a right to "Fair Use" of the sheet music. But the digital image file and the digital image of the sheet music are protected by copyright law and belong to the owner of the web site This is still a gray area of law, and we highly recommend the advice of an attorney. If the music is truly PD, there should be no problem with your printing or downloading the music and using it to make your own derivative work. You can probably print several copies and distribute them among others involved in your project, such as a chorus group or musical production cast. However, unless the web site gives you specific other permissions, you are treading on thin legal protection to go much beyond personal use of the actual image of the sheet music. If you post the image on your own web site or sell digital or hard copies of the music, you possibly infringe on the web owner's copyright protection. IMPORTANT: If the web site is in error and the music is NOT public domain, YOU are liable for any royalties assessed by the copyright holder for any use you make of the song.
Can I copy the back pages of sheet music I purchased and spread them out
so I do not have to turn the page?