It is very normal nowadays to go to the Internet and search for “free music” in a search engine.
And not just “free music”, but also “free music for videos”, “free music for presentations” or “free music for business”.
In the same way, it is quite common that when you search for those terms, you will find results that point in one direction: public domain music.
But what is public domain music? Where can you find it? Is it really free?
We know that everything related to public-domain music is quite confusing.
Some people confuse the music tracks belonging to this group with the Creative Commons license
Other people say it’s simply music without copyright
Others confirm that it’s royalty-free music
And, above all, most of the catalog is free music
Well, in all of this there are parts of truth and parts that are simply not true.
So, in order to avoid scary and uncomfortable situations with copyrights, along with the article, we will solve all the doubts related to public domain music.
To do this it is essential that you read the article in order and from beginning to end.
Otherwise, you may not solve your doubts, misinterpret some information and you may have problems using music in an illegal way.
Before you start, however, we recommend that you take a look at the following image, which shows the different types of licenses. The part that appears in green is the part corresponding to public domain music.
And if you look, it’s also part of the group with the double CC. Don’t worry if you don’t understand it right now.
It will all make sense as you progress through the reading.
What is public domain music?
Music in the public domain is made up of any and all works that are not protected by copyright.
Therefore they can be used without the need for any permission or payment to the author of the same.
Musical works in the public domain may be copied, distributed, adapted, performed and displayed in public free of charge.
In other words, it is as if they belong to everyone.
Copyright and the public domain
Normally, the authors of the songs have exclusive rights to their compositions.
These compositions are considered “intellectual property”.
Intellectual property is any product of human intelligence whose ownership can be claimed and protected by law, including musical works.
The exclusive rights to the compositions are known as copyright, which protects the musical composition for a long period of time, even if it has never been registered with the copyright office.
These rights are usually in effect and associated with a piece of music until they expire.
The exact time depends on the laws of each country but it is usually between 70 and 95 years after the death of the author of the original piece.
After that time, the piece of music ceases to be copyrighted, i.e. it is no longer protected by law but becomes a musical work in the public domain.
How can a song belong to the public domain?
Any song that belongs to the Public Domain can be for one of these two reasons:
It’s a song that was “born” in the public domain because it was created before copyright existed
It is a song whose copyright has expired beyond its term of application – the above-mentioned 70-95 years after the death of its author-.
There is a peculiar case that is often confused with the public domain.
This is the case of registered songs in which the author voluntarily renounces all copyrights to the song.
If you think about it, you could use those songs in the same way as the ones in the public domain.
Is the Public Domain the same as a Creative Commons license?
Public domain music does not set any limitations on the use of a music track.
On the other hand, music protected by a Creative Commons free license has certain limitations on the reproduction, distribution, dissemination and copying of a musical work.
The limitations will depend directly on which of the 7 Creative Commons licenses is in effect. If you want to know more about these licenses, we suggest you visit this article.
However, there is one license that is often mistakenly confused with the public domain: the Creative Commons Zero license (CC0).
Creative Commons Zero (CC0), the “sister” of the public domain
This license is the only one of the Creative Commons licenses that proposes total freedom of use of a piece of music.
This is due to the enormous generosity of the author of the music track, who renounces his rights to make the track available to the public, free of charge and without requiring his own mention.
This idea is quite contrary to the standards of the industry and the world as we know it.
Nowadays, any musical work is usually monetized or, in its lack, the author is mentioned so that he can take the merits of his work.
However, this type of Creative Commons license proposes a total renunciation of all that.
Differences from public domain music
Let’s take this opportunity to refresh your memory. Do you remember this image? At the beginning of the article we showed this image to you so that you could get an idea of the licenses.
Now, we show it again so you can see that the Public Domain and the Creative Commons Zero (0) license appear as the same.
In practice, there would be no difference, since both allow a total use of the music track without any barrier.
However, the difference is that:
In the public domain, a work becomes available for public use at least 70 years after the death of its author
In the Creative Commons Zero license, the author is the one who decides to release his work from the moment of its creation
Now that the differences between public domain music and Creative Commons licenses have been clarified, and specifically the differences with respect to the Creative Commons Zero license, it is time to answer another of the big questions.
Is public domain music free?
There are some songs that do and some that don’t.
In theory, the songs in the public domain are not copyrighted so you can download them and use them for free in any project. However, there are companies and online platforms that charge for the download of these music tracks.
This may seem somewhat ambiguous and may lead you to ask yourself the following question:
Why do some companies ask for money to license a public domain song?
The reality is that no one owns full copyright in a public domain work.
However, anyone can decide to invest money in performing such work and recording it on a medium, either physical (CD, Vinyl…) or digital (Mp3, Wav…).
At that moment, the person who makes this performance/recording becomes the copyright holder of that recording.
The key is the recording
This means that if someone wants to use that same performance/recording of the music track, they will need to pay to get the copyright license for the recording of the track.
The ability to collect royalties on the recording of public domain music is what makes companies willing to invest money in, for example, producing classical music records in order to exploit them commercially.
Similarly, there are companies that benefit from selling licenses to use such recordings in all kinds of audiovisual projects.
To better understand this process, you must first understand the difference between the copyright in the composition of a musical work and the copyright in the recording of that work.
Difference between composition and recording copyright
There are two rights inherent in any sound recording: the copyright of the composition, and the copyright of the recording.
Although both rights are linked to a cation, it is essential to know how to differentiate between them to really understand why some songs in the public domain are not free.
Copyright on composition
The copyright on the musical composition is given on all the elements that make up the composition, such as the music and the lyrics.
Authorship of the musical composition, and therefore of the copyright in the musical composition, is held by the composer and lyricist – as long as they are not the same person-.
This musical composition can take the form of a notebook, such as a score or a sheet of paper with the lyrics, or also the form of a sound format, such as a cassette, a CD, a vinyl, etc.
Copyright on the recording
The copyright on the recording is given on the sound recording itself.
I.e. on the binding of the musical sounds in a sound format, either physical, such as a CD, or digital, such as an mp3 or a Wav.
The power of these rights is vested in the record label that has made the recording of that music track.
How is copyright assigned?
As is usually the case in the music industry, when an artist creates a piece of music he usually signs two agreements regarding his rights.
Publishing agreement with author societies
On the one hand, it will sign a publishing agreement in which it will assign part or all of its copyright on the composition of the musical piece.
This agreement is usually made between the artist and the copyright societies, and the purpose of the agreement is for these societies to administer and manage the rights:
Looking for people interested in using the artist’s composition in their works or performances
Issuing the necessary licenses
Collecting the money generated by the granting of licenses
By giving the artist the agreed percentage of the profits from the licenses
Depending on the country you are living in, the organization in charge of managing the rights of the music will change.
In the United States, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC
In Canada, SOSAC
In the United Kingdom, PRS and PPL
In Australia, APRA AMCOS
In Spain, SGAE
In Latin America, ACEMLA
Recording agreement with the record company
On the other hand, when an artist decides to record a piece of music, the most normal thing is that he goes to a record label to do it.
This company will perform all recording tasks from beginning to end in exchange for the author’s assignment of his copyright in the recordings of the piece of music.
What happens when you want to perform the work of another artist?
In cases where an artist wants to create his own version of a piece of music by another singer, he will need to obtain permission from the copyright holder for the musical composition (lyrics and music).
However, in the event that the artist wants to use the original version of another author’s piece of music, the person who wants to use the song will need to ask permission from two people:
The one who holds the copyright over the musical composition, usually the original author or those in charge of managing those rights – copyright societies.
The one who holds the copyright on the musical recording, which in most cases is usually the record label responsible for the recording.
To help you understand it better, we will give you a real example below. For this, we will take into account the song “Respect”, popularized by Aretha Franklin.
The original song was composed by the artist Otis Redding and released in 1965. A couple of years later, Aretha Franklin released her own version of the song. It was not a new composition, but a composition that had already been created by Otis Redding. In addition, Aretha Franklin went into the studio and recorded his own version.
What does this mean? That Aretha Franklin just needed to get the copyright license for the composition. It was not necessary to license the copyright of the recording since it was not the same recording as the original, but a new recording.
Is this the same as a derivative work?
The above example would be a new version – recording – of a copyrighted topic.
A derivative work is when an original work that is in the public domain has been translated, adapted or altered in any way.
In this case, this new adapted piece would be copyrighted because it is a new recording, and therefore anyone wishing to use it would need to obtain permission from the author of the derivative work.
Having clarified the differences between the copyright of the composition and that of the recording, it is time to discover the best places to find music in the public domain.
Where to find public domain music?
There are several platforms on the Internet that you can access to find public domain music to use in your projects.
Below is a list of the most representative websites.
Musopen is a non-profit organization that provides a large number of sheet music, recordings and textbooks at no cost.
Their goal is to “liberate music” by improving access and exposure to music through the creation of free educational resources and materials.
Through this link, you will find filtered all the songs in the public domain.
Mutopia offers an extensive virtual catalog of classical music scores for free download.
They include works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Mozart, etc.
In addition, there is a group of volunteers who are responsible for making a typographic composition, which allows a preview of the music so you can get an idea of how it sounds.
FreePD is possibly the website on this list with the most animated and fun touch.
They also offer a great list of songs and effects under Creative Commons Zero (CC0) and Public Domain license.
The genres you can find on their homepage are upbeat (positive), epic/dramatic, romantic, comic, or electronic, among many others.