Making sure it’s public domain sheet music

sheet music

If you’re a choir or chorus director, can you photocopy an arrangement of public domain sheet music or must you purchase multiple copies of the music? What if you’ve found a new, beautifully typeset edition that includes minor corrections? It has a copyright notice on it, right? But is it really protected by copyright? How can you tell?

If knowing more about public domain sheet music — what you can do with it and some things to be careful of when using it — would help you, you’ve landed on the right page.

Before we get started — if you’re just looking for places to find public domain sheet music, see the free sheet music page. Okay now ...

If it’s public domain sheet music, here’s what you can do

When sheet music is in the public domain, you can freely:

Many artists have been inspired by those who have come before them and have used public domain music to create new works. For example, see this Wikipedia list of popular songs based on classical music.

If it’s not public domain sheet music, watch out

When sheet music is not in the public domain you must deal with things like these (depending on how you want to use the work):

As you can imagine, a music licensing scenario can get pretty hairy, depending on what you want to do with the copyrighted music. You might need a synchronization license and a master recording license, or maybe just a synchronization license. Or maybe just a mechanical license. Confusing? You bet, to say nothing of expensive. But here’s the good news ...

With public domain sheet music you don’t have to worry about any of this. If the music is in the public domain, you can perform it publicly — wherever you like, without paying any fees at all. You can make copies of it, record it, remix it, use it in a film or on a web site ... it’s up to you.

You do have to establish that the sheet music really is public domain, though. And you should know about a few things that might trip you up — more on that in a minute.

How do you know it’s public domain sheet music?

Here are the main ways sheet music can enter the public domain:

To learn how to tell if a work is in the public domain for these reasons, and more, take the tutorial on copyright and the public domain.

Note: To know if a work’s copyright has expired you must know whether the work has been published. Performing a piece of music does not publish the music, by the way. And before January 1, 1978, music was considered published only when sheet music was distributed to the public. If the music was distributed on recordings only (vinyl records, 8-track tapes, whatever), it was not considered published.

Okay, back to the task at hand. (But do take the tutorial if you’re at all confused. The page on copyright expiration has more info on publication.)

Now what’s that about potential problems?

If sheet music is in the public domain it’s copyright free music, right? Right. But what if the sheet music you want to use is a new edition or an arrangement of a public domain piece? What then?

Let’s find out ...

Part 2: Avoiding Problems with Public Domain Music »