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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Music Copyright

This guide will point you toward information and resources to help navigate the complex world of music copyright.

Common Terminology

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that exists as soon as an original work is expressed in a tangible form. To be copyrighted in the United States, a work must be (1) an original creation, (2) the work of a human author, and (3) fixed in a tangible format. Once you create an original work in a fixed medium (e.g. as a score, sound recording, book, etc.), you are the author and owner of its copyright.

Below are some basic principles of copyright:

  • You are not required to register your copyright with the Copyright Office or to include a copyright statement.
  • As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. (For more details regarding these timeframes, see the "Public Domain" tab.)
  • If more than one person created a work, they might be joint owners of a work. (In this case, copyright protection extends to 70 years after the last surviving author's death.)
  • Ideas cannot be copyrighted; only the tangible expression in a fixed medium of the idea can.
  • When considering music, keep in mind that there are differences between a musical work and the ways that it is published, performed, recorded, etc. A piece of music published 200 years ago is not under copyright, but recent published editions of the score or recorded performances of it are under copyright.
  • If something looks copyrighted, assume it is!

For more information about copyright, see the following resources:

Fair use is a phrase used in copyright law to allow for the use of copyrighted materials without obtaining explicit permission from the copyright holder. It can only be used in certain circumstances and it can often be tricky to figure out whether a situation falls within the bounds of fair use or not. The types of uses which are outlined in copyright law as being potential examples of fair use are "commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship."

For legal reasons, library staff can not make a fair use judgment for you. In order to determine if your use is fair, you must consider the work you wish to use and how you plan to use it based on the following factors:

  • Purpose and character of your use of the work
  • Nature of the work 
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion of the work you are using
  • Effect of your use on the work's value

Unfortunately, it is hard to know for sure when something counts as fair use because, ultimately, the court decides fair use on a case-by-case basis. Generally, we should exercise our best judgment and consider risk assessment when making fair use determinations. 

For more information about fair use, see the following resources:

Public domain refers to works whose copyright has expired. When this happens, the work is no longer protected by copyright law and it can be used freely without permissions. Because Congress lengthened the term of copyright a number of times throughout the 1900s, the copyright for works published before 1978 may be shorter than for works created in 1978 and beyond. This can make it difficult to determine whether something is in the public domain. As of January 1, 2024, works that meet the following criteria are in the public domain:

  • All works created before January 1, 1929
  • Copyrighted works created between January 1, 1929 and December 31, 1963 that failed to renew their copyright
  • Works published without copyright between January 1, 1929 and December 31, 1977
  • Works published between January 1, 1978 and December 31, 1988 that failed to register for copyright within 5 years


Sound recordings do not follow traditional public domain rules. The Music Modernization Act (2018) implemented a system in which the copyrights of sound recordings are now covered under a different federal law. When researching copyright protection of a sound recording, you must check the copyrights status of both the recording and its underlying composition.

Below are some helpful guidelines for copyright timeframes for older works:

Recording Date When Does it Enter Public Domain?
Before Jan. 1, 1924 Currently Public Domain
Jan. 1, 1924 - Dec. 31, 1946 100 years after publication
Jan. 1, 1947 - Dec. 31, 1956 110 years after publication
Jan. 1, 1957 - Feb. 14, 1972 February 15, 2067
Feb. 15, 1972 - Dec. 31, 1978 95 years after publication
After Jan. 1, 1989 70 years after the death(s) of the author(s) OR 95 years after publication for works with corporate ownership


Keep in mind that sound recordings created and published outside of the United States are protected in different ways. These protections are complicated, but in general, any recording created or published in a foreign country on a date that would result in it being in the public domain in that country as of January 1, 1996 is now in the public domain.

For more information about public domain, see the following resources:

Orphan works are works for which there is no clear copyright owner. Orphan works are protected under copyright law, as are all intellectual and creative works, but because of the lack of obvious ownership, it can be almost impossible to obtain copyright permission for orphan works. Unfortunately, a work's status as an orphan work does not allow you to treat the work any differently than any other work.

If you are in this situation, you can:

  1. Reevaluate fair use. If you can find no way to get permission or pay a licensing fee after a long search for a copyright holder, this may change the way you look at the "market effect" factor of fair use. The potential market for this content is unlikely to be harmed by your use of the content, and you may be able to more generously evaluate fair use for this work.
  2. Change the use of the orphaned content to fit within fair use. By using only a portion of, fewer copies of, or limiting access to the work, you might be able to change the scope of your project to fit within the boundaries of fair use.
  3. Find a replacement. Is their a piece of content in the public domain, or with a more cooperative copyright owner that could fulfill the needs of you project as well as the orphan work?

For more information about orphan works, see the following resources:

Derivative works are new works that are based on existing works. In general, if you have changed a work so much that it would warrant its own copyright privileges, it is considered an adaptation or derivative work and requires the permission of the original creator.

For more information about derivative works, see the following resources: