The Public Domain: Royalty Free Music
At some point every song we have heard will fall into the public domain and be free for anyone to use. What is the public domain? This is an imaginary lace where music goes that is not protected by copyright. As I have stated in a previous are from the time your creation is fixed to a tangible medium of expression (i.e. music on a compact disc or lyrics on paper), you have a copyright in it, but you do not have the benefits of the copyright law until it is registered and a copy is on file with the U.S. Library of Congress. Is there an old song in which you would like to use its’ beat, tune, melody or any part of that song in your song? Most artists would probably answer yes. The first thing you must do is to figure out if the song is protected by copyright or if it is in the public domain.
Copyright is granted for a limited time only. So how do you determine if the song is in the public domain…well this can help you out: (1) anything written and published for the government falls into the public domain at its outset or when its created, (2) any sheet music published over 75 years ago is likely in the public domain, (3) anything that was published prior to January 1, 1978 without a copyright notice fell into the public domain, and (4) ….well here’s where it gets tricky…in 1998, Congress extended the term for Pre-January 1, 1978 songs if they were still under copyright to a total of 95 years protection and for those created after January 1, 1978 to the life of the owner or last surviving owner plus seventy years (this is the current standard). Other rules do apply for earlier works!
My advice for you is to find the oldest version of the song and all its successors if you plan to sample it, that way you can get a clear view of the songs chronology and then you can determine which authors you need to track down. A newer version of the work may still have components and parts of the work that are protected by copyright.
The underlying purpose of your investigating is to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit and to give credit to another author when it is due. But when a work goes into the public domain, it simply means that anyone can use it for FREE!
Many artists, television shows, and commercials use music in the public domain because there are no fees associated with using the music. So do your research, be thorough!
Written by: LaQuita R. Stokes, Attorney at Law for Corbin Johnson, PLLC
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