It is a common myth that public domain music can be used in YouTube videos, films, and other commercial projects free of royalties and licensing restrictions. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, because of how music copyright works, most modern recordings still need be licensed, even if the song is public domain.
So what exactly is Public Domain music, and how is public domain music different from royalty free music?
This guide covers the basics of music copyright, what public domain really means, how public domain is different from royalty free music, and what that means for how you can use music in your next film, commercial, or YouTube trailer.
Music copyright exists to protect composers of music and their rights as intellectual property creators. It is what enables them to earn a living from creating and making music, and protects their hard work from being unfairly exploited or stolen.
However, copyright is a jumble of laws and regulations that can be hard to understand when it comes to how to apply it to common scenarios. Add in the complexity of different laws in different countries, and using music legally in any kind of project can become frustratingly confusing even for the best-intentioned of us.
In the United States, copyrights are issued and documented by the Library of Congress. In order to show copyright ownership of a piece of music, a composer (or their representative -- i.e. a record label or publisher) needs to file a form (usually forms PA or SR) with the government showing that they created the music.
Filing for copyright with the government provides an official record that can be used in court or elsewhere that proves that the composer owns the work in question. However, as copyright law stipulates, an official filing is not required for a composer to establish ownership. In fact, all of the intellectual property rights are instantly granted to a composer when a piece is created. However, a formal registration is required to file an infringement lawsuit in court.
There are two main types of copyrights that cover a musical work. In the US, and most other countries, each usually requires a separate filing with the Library of Congress to properly show copyright ownership, but an official filing with the government is not a requirement.
The copyright for the musical composition covers the actual combination of melodies and harmonies that comprise a song. While there is no minimum or maximum length or limitation to the combinations being used, the composer generally must show that their composition is a new idea. To do so, the composer files form PA (in the US) with the Library of Congress, and normally will include a printed version of the song (aka sheet music) that documents exactly how the song goes. This type of copyright prevents other musicians and composers from claiming they wrote the music. Form PA can also be used to cover lyrics.
The copyright for a sound recording covers a specific audio performance of a song. In most cases, copyrighting a sound recording simultaneously copyrights the underlying original composition if it has not already been copyrighted.
Contrary to popular belief, copyrights are not forever. Copyrights have an expiration date; for music written before 1978, these copyrights must be maintained by the copyright owner in order to take advantage of renewal terms. Once a copyright expires, the music enters public domain status.
In the United States, a new copyright expires 70 years after the composer’s death. If the work was made for hire, the copyright lasts 95 years from its first publication or 120 years from creation (whichever comes first). Generally speaking, the copyright for most new music won’t expire for a long time.
However, expiration dates music created before 1978 is a bit more complicated, thanks to the Copyright Act of 1976. The important takeaway from this is that music that was protected prior to 1978 has a maximum copyright of 95 years. This means that all music created prior to 1924 are considered public domain.
Internationally, different countries have different expiration dates. In fact, copyright terms range from 50 years to 99 years depending on the country. What this really means is that a piece that might be under copyright in one country might not be in another. This can make distributing your project worldwide a bit of a headache. Check this list for a nearly exhaustive summary of international copyright dates.
Music is considered to be public domain if it is no longer protected by copyright, or if it didn’t meet those requirements in the first place. For artists, filmmakers, and YouTube copyright creators, that means that public domain works can be used without needing the permission of the copyright owner.
So you might be thinking that because a composition is public domain, you can take that Chicago Symphony recording of the William Tell Overture and use that in your YouTube video free of charge.
Just because a composition is in the public domain doesn’t mean that the recording you like can be used in your project. In fact, because of sound recording copyright, most modern recordings still need to be licensed if you want to use it.
Remember, sound recordings have their own copyright. With the piece in the public domain, you can create a new recording of the song, or print sheet music, or share the music itself -- but you can’t take a sound recording that was created recently and use it without the permission of the copyright holder of the sound recording, which is most likely different than the former copyright holder of a public domain piece of music. Broadly speaking, copyrights to modern sound recordings belongs to record labels and individual artists.
Royalty free music is music that can be used in a YouTube video, film, commercial, podcast, etc. without paying ongoing license fees to the creator. Typically, royalty free music refers specifically to the sound recording being used, but implies that the underlying composition is also covered by this type of license.
We won’t go into music licensing in detail here, however, you can read more about how to license royalty free music for film and video in our Music Licensing 101 guide.
Note that this is fundamentally different than Public Domain music.
Specifically, a production music composer can use music in the public domain to create a new track for film without worrying about the underlying composition. They can create new arrangements based on the composition as well, and they (or the music library they work with) can even license that track for you to use. A composer (or music library for that matter) cannot do this with music that is not in the public domain; they can only do this with music they’ve written themselves.
A musical composition might be in the public domain, but, in most cases, the sound recording is not. Public domain shouldn’t be the only guiding factor in what music you decide to use in a project, since you cannot use an existing modern recording of a public domain song without securing licensing from the track’s creator. If you’re looking to use a piece of classical music or a public domain song in your next YouTube video or film, a creator of production music can create a brand new recording of a classical music composition that you can use.
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