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USA Copyright Law for Sound Recordings

Sound Recording Rule of Thumb:
Sound Recordings Released in 1922 or Earlier Entered the Public Domain in the USA on January 1, 2022.
There are essentially NO Sound Recordings in the Public Domain in the USA.

The U. S. Congress passed the Music Moderization Act ("MMA") in 2018 allowing sound recordings to begin entering the public domain in the USA in 1922. Recordings released from 1923 to 1956 are given 95 years copyright protection plus 5 or 15 years depending upon the release date of the recording. Recordings released in 1957 thru February 15, 1972 enter the public domain February 15, 2067.

Sound Recordings Enter the Public Domain
Before 1923January 1, 2022
1923-1946Release Year + 95 yrs + 5 yrsEx:  1923 = 1923+95+5 = 2023
Ex:  1946 = 1946+95+5 = 2046
1947-1956Release Year + 95 yrs + 15 yrsEx:  1947+95+15 = 2057
Ex: 1956+95+15 = 2066
1957 to 2/15/1972February 15, 2067
After 2/15/197295 years from release or 120 years
from recording date, whichever is shorter.
A summary of the 2018 MMA is on the Copyright Office website.   The complete text of 2018 MMA H.R. 5447 is on the congress.gov website.

Songs and Musical Works have always been protected under U.S. federal copyright law. But sound recordings and records were so new and rare in the early 1900s, they were not included in the Copyright Act of 1909. Until 1976, sound recordings were protected by a hodge-podge tangle of state, county, and city laws. Many state and local laws included sound recordings under common law, which meant that ownership was forever and, unlike copyright protection, ownership of a sound recording would NEVER expire.

The Copyright Act of 1976 created a copyright category called Sound Recordings that now provides federal copyright protection for CD's, MP3's, WAV files, records, and other music recordings made after February 15, 1972. These Sound Recordings receive copyright protection for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. But the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act left copyright protection for sound recordings fixed or published before February 15, 1972, remaining under state law until 2068. The 2018 Music Modernization Act finally placed all sound recordings under federal copyright protection. Federal protection of Sound Recordings will now begin to expire in 1922 based upon the year of their release. On January 1, 2022 sound recordings will finally begin to enter the public domain in the USA.

Note that a musical work and a sound recording of a musical work have separate copyright protection.  The children's song, "Mary Had A Little Lamb" is absolutely in the public domain worldwide, and it can be freely used by anyone. However, in the USA, sound recordings of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" are in the public domain after 2021 only if they were released in 1922 or earlier.  If you want to use any sound recording released after 1922 - even a sound recording of a public domain song - you must either license a recording or create your own recording.

Sure, there are always a few exceptions to every rule. The U.S. government cannot hold any copyrights, so sound recordings made by the federal government can potentially be in the public domain. Some individuals have made sound recordings and placed them in the public domain. But because state copyright protection was ended with the 2018 Music Modernization Act, all recordings after 1922 are now protected under federal copyright law. Even the experts can rarely be absolutely confident that they have identified one of the extremely rare post-1922 PD sound recordings. So unless you have a law degree and Ph.D. in Intellectual Property, it is highly unlikely you will be able to competently recognize a public domain sound recording released after 1922.

You can find more information about sound recording copyright law at Public Domain Sherpa. And if you are interested in how royalties are paid to artisits and song writers, The Verge has a great article about all the contorted legal details regarding sound recording royalties. These two articles will give you some idea of the extreme complexity of music law.

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