When does music become public domain? Music falls under the same copyright as text, but sound recordings are governed by a different set of rules, so you should know which set of laws control the content you're seeking. For other countries, it would require research about the laws in the specific countries you're interested in. This article deals only with US rulings and law.
Music compositions are protected by standard copyright law.
In the US, music compositions and lyrics are protected by the same copyright law that protects books and other fixed works. While the specifics vary in some cases, general guidelines for music copyright law in the US are as follows below.
Works published before 1923 are public domain - In the US, works published or registered before 1923 are in the public domain.
Works published between 1923 and 1964 - In the US, works published between 1923 and 1964 are protected for 28 years, and can be renewed for an additional 28 years or, depending on when it was published, possibly 67 years instead. However, if the copyright is not renewed in the 28th year of the first copyright period, copyright protection for the song is then lost the song then goes into the public domain at the end of the first 28 year period.
Works published between 1964 and 1977 - In the US, works created between 1964 and 1977 are copyright protected for 28 years, but the 67-year renewal is automatic, for a total of 95 years of copyright protection. The earliest works under this category will go into the public domain starting in 2059.
Works published after January 1, 1978 - In the US, works created after January 1, 1978, are protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years.
For additional comprehensive details, please see these articles at the US Copyright Office:
Sound recordings fall under a different set of rules - Fixed sound recordings (i.e. "masters") fall under a different set of rules from music and lyrics. What this means is that music and lyrics for a song recorded in 1963 may be in the public domain, if the copyright holder failed to renew the copyright, but a fixed recording of that music might still be protected. Therefore, you could conceivably make your own recording using the copyright-free music and lyrics, but you couldn't use the protected recording of the same content.
Some sound recordings before 1972 may fall under state anti-piracy guidelines or other laws, but those laws vary from state to state. A series of federal copyright laws protect fixed sound recordings made before February 15, 1972, until February 15, 2067. Sound recordings after February 15, 1972, are protected to varying degrees at least until 2043. A majority of sound recordings are protected until 2048, or longer, depending on the individual circumstances.
International music is governed by copyright law in the country of origin.
United States copyright and music protection laws govern only works created in the United States. Works created in other countries are governed by the copyright and music protection laws in the country of origin, which vary significantly from country to country. But the general rule for music compositions is that they become public domain either 50 years or 70 years after the death of the composer, as detailed below:
- In general, within countries of the European Union, copyright extends 70 years from the death of the last surviving author/composer/lyricist.
- In Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and various other countries, copyright extends 50 years from the death of the last survivor.
- Elsewhere, except France, copyright extends 70 years from the death of the last survivor.
- In France copyright extends 76 from the death of the last survivor.
- Mexico has a term of 100 years after last composer's death.
- Some countries don't differentiate between "music" and "lyrics". So if the composer for a track has been dead "long enough" but the lyricist has not, the track is then unfortunately not yet in the public domain.
Sampling and mashups: Legal, or copyright violation?
Sampling is taking one section or portion of a song and using it in a different song. Sampling has incited much legal debate, and the current status of sampling is that most bands clear samples prior to releasing an album. Legal rulings have found that even using three notes from a song can constitute copyright infringement, so sampling generally involves paying royalties or a fee to the copyright owner.
Mashups happen when people blend or combine two or more songs. One common form of mashups involves using the lyrics of one song with the music of another song. Mashups generally take more of the music directly than sampling, and therefore they have even less legal ground to stand on if a copyright holder chooses to sue a mashup creator.
So Which Tracks are Already in the Public Domain?
To research which tracks are already in the public domain, there's various Internet resources available:
Wikipedia (Wikipedia is a GREAT place to research specific tracks as well as legal issues related to public domain considerations)
Public Domain Music List (reasonably good site for researching tracks)
APRA sub-site (good info about Christmas songs)
Harry Fox web site (good place to find general info about songs)