Royalty-Free Music & Music Licensing
January 14, 2021

Public Domain Music - What Is It and Should You Use It?

By Josh Edwards 8 min read

Highlights

  • Public domain music are songs and tracks that are not protected by copyright, and can be used without permission or payment.
  • Copyright laws can protect musical composition for 50-70 years after an author's death.
  • There are many ways to find public domain music; however Artlist provides a huge library of copyright-free music.

Let's be honest with ourselves for a second. As creatives, we really don't enjoy getting bogged down by all-things copyright. We hate anything that acts as a barrier between us and achieving our creative goal. Understanding the seemingly tangled and very confusing web of copyrighted music is one of those big barriers. It's a topic that may make you roll your eyes or tune out or run for the hills.

But here at Artlist, we know it doesn't have to be like this. We're here to break things down in a simple, effective way that'll help you understand the laws and copyrights of music once and for all. 

Often, in most discussions about copyrights, you'll find the term 'public domain music' cropping up again and again - an effective way to sidestep any copyright issues, apparently. But what exactly is public domain music? It can save you time, money and a lot of headaches, so it's well worth understanding.

A common misconception is that public domain music is the same as music under the Creative Commons license. It's not. A few common beliefs are:

  • Public domain music is simply music without copyright. 
  • Public domain music is royalty-free music. 
  • Public domain music is just 'free music'.

While there are some truths within these statements, it's not quite that clear-cut. So, we're here to help make everything clear once and for all. Read on to find out all about public domain songs and learn how to use them correctly in your work.

What is public domain music?

Public domain songs are, in short, musical tracks and works that are not protected by copyright. This means that they can be used without any permission or payment to the 'owner' or creator of said track.

Music pieces in the public domain can be copied, distributed, adapted, performed and displayed by anyone and everyone for free. No strings attached and no hidden legal issues or snares. Sounds great, right? Effectively, it is free music!

How does music enter the public domain?

Great question. Surely, no artist in their right mind (with a few generous exceptions) would want to let their music just be used by all for free? That's why copyright exists. Authors, artists, musicians and producers - they all have exclusive rights to their songs and compositions. Their work, like your video, your film, your photos—whatever your creative output is—is considered 'intellectual property'.

The Oxford dictionary defines “intellectual property” as, 'a work or invention that is the result of creativity, such as a manuscript or a design [music and songs, in this case], to which one has rights and for which one may apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, etc.' Read more about copyright infringement to understand exactly what it is and how to avoid it happening to you.

vintage musician with a guitar and a microphone singing

It's the copyright that protects the musical composition for a long time—usually between 50 and 70 years after the author's death, depending on the country and its laws. After this date passes, the piece of music is no longer copyrighted.

A piece of work enters the public domain when no one owns the copyright to it, and the laws of the land cease to protect it. 

So, there are two ways in which musical work becomes free public domain music:

  • The song was created before copyright existed and therefore automatically falls into the free public domain music category
  • The song's copyright has expired (because the original owner/author passed away 50-70 years ago).

Now, you may naturally be wondering about the few generous artists who do voluntarily relinquish all copyrights and laws protecting their music? Heroes, all of them! Does that make their music public domain music? Not quite.

The Creative Commons License(s)

Music that is released to the public free of any copyright protection may be registered with a 'Creative Commons License.' You'd be forgiven for thinking that a song under the Creative Commons License is as good as free public domain music. Surely you can use these songs in the same way? Unfortunately, not quite. 

Whereas music in the public domain does not set any rules or limitations about what you can do with the track, the Creative Commons License has certain restrictions, depending on which Creative Commons License is in effect.

Enter: Creative Commons Zero License. This is the one (there are 7 overall) Creative Common License that gives you complete freedom over how you use the piece of music. Naturally, it's very easy to get this confused with public domain music.

However, you have 2 main differences that are clear and distinct:

  • If it's free public domain music, the work has become available for public use due to the fact it is no longer copyrighted (because of the author's death 50-70 years ago).
  • If it's music held under the Creative Commons Zero License, the author has voluntarily decided to immediately release the work for free public use with no copyright protection.

Is public domain music free?

The easy answer to this is yes. Technically, because nobody owns any copyrights to original public domain songs, you can download and use them in your projects for free.

However, you may have also noticed that there are plenty of sites that charge you to download these tracks. How and why are they allowed to do this?

Certain sites or artists may well invest money in performing and recording new performances of old songs that are currently in the public domain. The person who does this then becomes the copyright holder of that recording—the recording they're then charging you to download. Fair is fair!

Where to find free public domain music

old vintage radio

The chances are that you're looking for free public domain music. The whole idea is that it's free. Fortunately, there are some great sites out there that do a good job of providing this. Whether you're on the hunt for public domain Christmas songs, public domain hymns or public domain music for videos, you'll find a useful list of public domain songs on the following sites:

  • Free Music Archive
  • Free PD
  • MusOpen
  • SoundBible

The downsides of public domain music

Of course, as great as free public domain music is, there are downsides to be aware of. 

For example, naturally, the likelihood is that your favorite artists' songs, which you want to use in your projects, are not free. We all have to make a living. Suppose you're just using public domain songs for your project. In that case, you may well find yourself severely restricted by what you can use, limiting you creatively.

While it can be handy to turn to a list of public domain songs now and then, you're probably far better off using copyright-free music from a site like Artlist. with a vast library of high-quality royalty-free songs and a Universal License, you'll find something for whatever project you're working on.

As we said at the start of this article, we creatives hate barriers that get between us and achieving our creative goals. That makes having a quality music library to choose from and knowing you're fully covered for any video project a big win.

You may want to check out our articles on free non-copyrighted music and royalty-free sound effects for more information.

 

About author

Josh Edwards is an accomplished filmmaker, industry writing veteran, storyteller based in Indonesia (by way of the UK), and industry writer on the Blade Ronner Media team. He’s passionate about travel and documents adventures and stories through his films.

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