Copyright: The Public Domain Maze

What’s public domain (PD)? Copyrights do expire eventually. A work with an expired copyright or that never had a copyright is in the public domain and free to use. But, new arrangements or editions of public-domain works may be under copyright, so things can get tricky.

How long does copyright protection last?

It depends on the various updates of the copyright law, the latest in 1978.

  1. For works created on or after January 1, 1978, use the “life-plus-seventy” system: life of the longest surviving author plus 70 years. If the author’s unknown, then 95 years from the year of its first publication or 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. The earliest possible PD date for 1978 music is 1/1/2048. 
  2. For works first published before 1978, figuring out the term is more complicated:
  • Works originally copyrighted before 1950 and renewed before 1978—95 years from the end of the year in which the copyright was first secured.
  • Works originally copyrighted between January 1, 1950, and December 31, 1963—These copyrights lasted 28 years and had to be renewed to be protected for a second, 67-year term. If not renewed, the copyright expired at the end of the 28th year, and protection was lost permanently.
  • Works registered before January 1, 1923—The 75-year copyright protection has expired. These works are in the public domain.


No post-1922 works will enter the public domain until January 1, 2019.

Cornell University has a helpful chart that outlines various conditions for determining if a work is in the public domain.

Where can I get public-domain music and lyrics?

To be sure a song is in the public domain, find a copy with a copyright date before 1923. has guidelines for determining legitimate sources of PD music.

PD Info has a List of Public Domain Songs, as well as royalty-free music for sale, information on copyright law, and guidelines for identifying legitimate sources and usable public domain works. To prove public domain status in the U.S., you must find a published copy of the song with a copyright date of 1922 or earlier.

There are no sound recordings in the public domain in the U.S.


Don’t forget: A new arrangement of a public domain work may be under copyright!


Linda Brown, October 8, 2008, © National Association for Music Education (