When does music fall into the public domain? Music Licensing Guide

You might ask this important and confusing question: “When does music classified as public domain material?“. Typically as a background:

1.) All music for licensing are copyrighted materials. Whether they advertise themselves as “royalty-free”; the music is not a public domain material and the work is still copyrighted. You need to agree to the license or the terms of conditions stipulated by the music publisher before you can use the music.

2.) The length or term of copyright is not fixed by a number of years for all countries. Instead it depends on a variety of factors such as the country where the author resides or the type of work (anonymous, work for hire, etc.)

Source: Copyright term article in Wikipedia

3.) You can reuse public domain music or incorporate it with your composition without requiring a license. Some popular hit songs are based on the arrangement and structure of public domain music.

4.) A good example of public domain music are classical works made by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and all those classical composers for which the copyright already expires.

5.) As a short and easy definition, music will fall into public domain if the term of copyright expires.

Copyright Expiration and Public Domain Music

This can start to sound complicated because of the variety of factors involved that determines the life of a copyright. The term of copyright is an important indicator whether the music now belongs to public domain. However in the Wiki source article mentioned previously; below are minimum and maximum terms of copyright:

1.) Life of the author + 50 years
2.) Life of the author + 70 years

Another source (US Copyright website) mentions the life of copyright in terms of fixed years after first publication or creation date for anonymous, work for hire authors or work done using pseudonyms.

3.) Fixed years after publication (for anonymous, work for hire authors) = 95 years after publication date.
120 years from the creation date depending on which expires first

So if the author lives for around 90 years, the entire life of copyright has a minimum of 90+50 or 140 years and a maximum of around 90+70 = 160 years. This is true if the work is not created by an anonymous author.

Take note that this will differ from one country to another. The complete list of copyright term per country is shown in this Wiki summary. If the author is anonymous, it is either 95 years after the work is first published or 120 years from the date of creation (as shown in US Copyright website).

This is one of the main reasons why most classical music works (done by Beethoven, Mozart, etc.) now belongs to public domain. The work is more than 200 years old. Be careful when using “alleged” public domain music because it can get you in a legal trouble with the original authors. For example a song “All by myself” has been written by Eric Carmen with some lines and melodies borrowed from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. At first, Eric thought the music was already in the public domain but it was not. As a result, Eric Carmen made an agreement with the original authors.

Source: “All by myself” at Songfacts

How to really check if the music is now in public domain?

So lets asked again, when does music fall into the public domain? Below are the suggestions which help you find a more accurate answer than relying on assumptions:

1.) You need a strong documented/legal proof that the music already exceeds the life of the copyright. In this case, consider using the worst scenario which is the earliest possible date of expiration. Contact the copyright office and asked for documents. Of course prepare to spend for some research work. You can start by knowing how to perform a song copyright search.

2.) Visit this website to know whether the music is in the public domain: