Public Domain Music
People often assume that because a piece of music is very old, and everyone knows it well enough to hum the tune, then it’s in the public domain and is OK for anyone to use as they choose. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it could be costly if you include the wrong music in your media project and assume it’s Public Domain Music when it isn’t. So how do you make sure you only pick music that’s safe to use, when you want public domain music?
Music has various rights attached to it, known as copyrights. Public Domain Music is simply music that has has no rights attached to it. This could be because the rights have expired over time, it could be that the rights over has placed the work into the public domain. It could even be that the rights never existed, for example if a folk song was created way back in the mists of time and no-one knows by whom. So what are the rights to look out for with music, before we can be sure a piece of music is in the public domain?
1 – the authors, i.e. the composers who wrote the music, and the lyricists who wrote the words.
2 – the publisher, who will have a share in the rights, usually alongside the authors
3 – the Mechanical rights. If a public domain song is released on CD, the fact it’s an old song doesn’t mean the recording is Public Domain – copyright exists in the CD recording too.
For a piece of music to be considered as public domain music, each of those rights must not be active.
Safe Public Domain Music
So if you’re looking for some public domain music, let’s say a classical work for example, there are a few points to consider. Firstly can you assume the author’s copyrights have expired? With an old composer (Mozart, Beethoven etc.) that’s not a problem. But remember that copyright exists for many years after the composer dies, so a composer who died in the 20th century will still have copyright present on their work. Next, publishing, surely with Mozart this wouldn’t be a problem? Usually not, but many classical pieces are published as written arrangements, and publishing copyrights may well exist in those arrangements. Finally the mechanical rights, and why you can’t just use a CD of your favourite symphony orchestra! Copyright exists in the actual recording (the master recording you hear on the CD), so it’s not possible to use that particular recording, even though the composer’s rights may have expired long ago.
So what’s the solution to our classical music problem? The best is to use a recent royalty free music recording, where the mechanical rights have been licensed directly for royalty free distribution. There are many websites with such music (including www.royalty-free.tv).