The public domain consists of works that aren’t protected by copyright or by other legal means. These works can be used for free however you wish without seeking permission.
There are three ways a piece of music can enter the public domain.
- Its copyright has expired; or
- The copyright owner didn't get a valid copyright; or
- Its creators dedicated them to the public domain.
In order to know if its copyright has expired, you first have to know whether the work has been published. Under current copyright law in the United States (as well as most other countries), copyright ownership arises automatically when you create a copyrightable work. However, before the Copyright Act of 1976 (Links to an external site.) (effective beginning in 1978), a work was considered published only when it was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office with a copyright notice.
The most common way that a musical work enters the public domain is when its copyright expires. The duration of copyrights depends on several factor as the term of copyright has changed several times since the first Copyright Act of 1790 (Links to an external site.) . In order to determine which rules are applicable to a particular work, you must know when the work was created and the year of first publication.
As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the writer plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term is governed by the 1909 Copyright Act.
Note: We should not confuse a musical work with a sound recording of a musical work. For example, The song “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin is in the public domain and can be freely used, but no sound recordings of “The Entertainer” are in the public domain.