Adventures in Public Domain
If you've been following the heated legal dispute over
whether the song
Happy Birthday is in the public domain,
you may be curious about public
domain music, an entire world of music which is not only surprisingly
extensive, but also easy to use.
One of the great things about recording some of the world's oldest
and most popular songs is that they've entered the public domain. This
means that the copyright has expired, and you no longer need to obtain a
license to perform, reproduce, distribute, synchronize,
display, or create derivative works based on this composition.
Now before you go popping those champagne bottles, make sure to check
#1. Make sure that the composition is in fact in the public domain in your
The definition of public domain
differs country to country. In the
United States, the term of copyright protection is generally
following the death of the creator or the last living co-creator.
rule of thumb does not always apply, as the copyright term may
vary widely based on factors such as what copyright statutes
apply, how the song was registered with the Copyright Office,
the registration procedures were followed properly.
When in doubt, check
Public Domain Information Project
, do some Google searches on the composition and
call up your friendly local copyright attorney.
The more you know about the
composition, the better.
#2. Make sure that the arrangement of the
composition that you're using
isn't under copyright protection.
the copyright may have
expired on the original composition doesn't mean
that you can use any
arrangement of it without paying royalties. For example,
if you decide to
record a version of James Steven's arrangement of the 19th-century
Christian hymn Nearer My God To Thee
you'll need to obtain a license
from James' publisher. The type of license varies depending on what rights
you'd like to use. To obtain a sync license, you
can do so from the
publisher directly. To obtain a public performance license,
an administrator like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.
To obtain a mechanical
license, the type of license needed to sell or
give away your recording of
the copyrighted song arrangement, check out
If you've created your own original arrangement of a public
domain composition, you can register that arrangement with the Copyright
Office. You can also monetize your arrangement by collecting royalties
when your arrangement is used, or registering the arrangement with an
administrator like SongTrust to ensure that royalties are collected.
Do you have favorite arrangements of public domain
compositions? Please share in the comments below.
Chris Crawford is the co-founder and CEO
Loudr in San Francisco, CA. Loudr http://loudr.fm
builds products and
services that make it easy for content creators,
aggregators and digital
music services to identify, track and pay music publishers.
technology that parses song ownership information and
recordings to composition rights holders, Loudr makes it easy to secure
mechanical rights clearance for song usage at scale.