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 two things.

#1. Make sure that the composition is in fact in the public domain in your country. The definition of public domain differs country to country. In the United States, the term of copyright protection is generally 70 years following the death of the creator or the last living co-creator. However, the 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, and whether the registration procedures were followed properly. When in doubt, check the 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. Just because 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, contact 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 Loudr Licensing.

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. Powered by technology that parses song ownership information and matches sound recordings to composition rights holders, Loudr makes it easy to secure mechanical rights clearance for song usage at scale.
Author: Chris Crawford
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