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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Copyright Resources for Music: Public Domain

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

About Public Domain

Items in the public domain are those that are not under copyright, usually due to their age.  Because there have been many changes in copyright laws, it can be difficult to determine whether something is in the public domain.

Online Public Domain Resources

Sound Recordings and the Public Domain

Sound recordings created in the U.S. are protected under two separate copyrights: that of the composition, and that of the sound recording of the composition. So remember, when researching copyright protection of a sound recording, you must check the copyrights status of both the recording and the underlying composition.

What's in the Public Domain?

  • Compositions published before 1923.
  • Compositions published between 1923 and 1964 in the U.S. whose copyrights were not renewed and compositions published between 1923 and 1989 whose copyrights were abandoned by failure to affix a copyright notice with their published works. (i.e, ©, year of publication, and name of copyright owner.)
  • Recordings created or published in the U.S. before 1972 are not protected by federal copyright law, but are still protected by state statutory law and/or common law. This includes recordings of public domain compositions. 
  • The earliest that copyright protection for any pre-1972 recording will expire is 2067. 

Sound Recordings in Foreign Countries

Keep in mind that sound recordings created and published in a foreign country are protected in a different manor. 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 see Copyright Term and the Public Domain from the Cornell Copyright Information Center

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