Tag Archives: public domain

The Public Domain – A Guide for Media Producers

What do these artistic works have in common?

  • Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
  • Hamlet
  • Moby Dick
  • Oh Susannah
  • America the Beautiful
  • Tarzan
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Answer: They are no longer protected by copyright law and are free for all to use. They are classified as being in the Public Domain.

These creative works, and thousands like them, are available for use by the public at no charge because their copyrights have expired or have somehow, been nullified.

The available public domain media include images, music, photos, illustrations, graphics, books, artworks and movies.

Generally speaking, US publications prior to 1923 are in the public domain. So you won’t find the latest bestsellers or any top ten hits. You will find the classic books from the start of this century and previous centuries, as well as the great musical masterworks from Bach to Tchaikovsky.

Copyright Limits
In the United States, works published with a copyright notice from 1923 through 1977 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. Those published in 1978 or thereafter are now protected for 70 years after the death of the creator, as are those in the European Community. In Canada and other countries, the period is life plus 50 years.

Misconceptions about Public Domain works
True or False…since Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, Swan Lake, was composed in the 19th century and is now in the public domain, it can be freely used as background music in video or multimedia presentations?

The answer is True AND False

It is true that Swan Lake is no longer under copyright and this public domain music can be freely used without seeking permission from a publisher. In other words, you don’t have to pay anyone to acquire synchronization rights to be able to use the music of Swan Lake.

However, if you use an existing recording of Swan Lake in your work, that recording is protected by copyright and you would need to get permission from the record company to use it.

So yes, Swan Lake is public domain music and you could use it for free if you assembled your own ensemble of musicians and recorded your own version of it. But if you use someone else’s recorded version, you would need permission from them to be able to use their recording in your production.

This is an example of a public domain piece of music –  Jeux D’eau by Maurice Ravel. Though the work itself is in the public domain, this recording is fully copyrighted and would require a license to use in your work.

Here’s a quick rule of thumb when using music, images, graphics, or texts in your productions… If you didn’t personally create it, then you need permission to use it in your work unless the media in question has entered the public domain. For a detailed article about copyright permissions, Master Use and Synchronization Rights, see the article How to Use Music Legally in Your Work.

UniqueTracks Public Domain Classical Music
UniqueTracks offers a quick and easy way to legally license classical music recordings of music works that are in the public domain. When you purchase a license from UniqueTracks, you are acquiring master use rights to use the recordings in your projects and products with no further licensing or payments to us.

The UniqueTracks Stock Music Library licenses public domain classical stock music recordings for a variety of media use.  Classical music offers the benefit of time-tested melodies that have moved listeners for generations. Included in our series are movements from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballets ” Swan Lake“, “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker (Suite)“, the famous “Blue Danube Waltz” by Johan Strauss, Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” Vivaldi’s brilliant “Gloria” for choir and orchestra, numerous solo Piano Waltzes by Chopin, the “Air on a G String” by J S Bach, and Schubert’s “Fifth Symphony”.

Public Domain Sites, More Information
Project Gutenberg – A great site of public domain literature, Project Gutenberg is the oldest producer of free electronic books (eBooks or etexts) on the Internet. All may be freely downloaded and read and redistributed for non-commercial use.

Copyright Confusion by Neil Wilkinson
Clear and concise discussion of copyright from WritersWeekly.com

United States Copyright Office – Library of Congress. Lots of copyright information, also tells how to register your own work for copyright.


Premium Stock Music for Film, TV, Advertising, and Interactive. Editor-selected, Easy Search, Fast Results.  UniqueTracks has a vast library of music loops and grooves plus a large selection of classical production music available for licensing into your production.


Royalty Free Music, Sound Effects, and Animated Video Backgrounds

How To Use Music Legally In Your Work

When do I need a license to use music in my work?
You need to acquire a license when you want to take music that you have not personally created and use it as background music soundtrack in your production.  Acquiring a license gives you the legal right to include someone else’s copyrighted work as a part of your own work.

What is a Copyright?
Copyright is a federal law that protects creators by giving them exclusive rights to their works for a period of time.  Once a work is under copyright, it is considered copyright infringement (illegal) to use the work without the permission of the copyright owner.

How does copyright affect my decision to use music?
Music that has been recorded and issued on CD is protected by 2 copyrights.  To use a recording of a musical composition in your work, you need to get permission from both copyright holders.

The first permission you need is from the music’s publisher.  The music publisher holds the copyright for the actual written music – the melody, the lyrics, the accompaniment, the actual music as it would appear in sheet music.  This copyright is shown by using the familiar © symbol.

The second permission is for the recording itself.  To get this, you would approach the record company that released the recording.  The record company holds the copyright for the actual performance of the song captured and mastered on tape and released on CD.  The symbol for this copyright is the letter (P) inside a circle. (look on the back of your own Cds, you will see these symbols in use)

The fact that music is protected by copyright doesn’t mean you cannot use it, it simply means you have to seek permission to use it.  To receive that permission you will typically have to pay a licensing fee.

What licenses do I need?
Here are the licenses you need for the right to use music in your media project:

Synchronization License – This license is issued by the music publisher.  The Synchronization License (often abbreviated as “sync” license) gives you the right to “synchronize” the copyrighted music with your images and dialogue.

Note: Having a sync license means you have permission from the publisher to use the music but it doesn’t give you the right to use a specific recording of the composition.  For that, you need the following…

Master Use License – This license is issued directly from the record company. Fees can range from several hundred dollars to millions of dollars depending on the popularity of the music.

Once you have paid the music publisher for a Sync License and the record company for a Master Use license, you have the legal right to use the music in your production within the terms of the license you negotiated.

Sidebar
This article is about music that is under copyright and NOT in the public domain.  In the United States, music written before 1933 is in the public domain and can be used without having to acquire a synchronization license.  However, you will still need a master use license if you use a recording of a piece in the public domain.  Music written after 1933 is still under copyright according to US law.  Public Domain is defined and interpreted differently in Canada, Europe, and the UK. Here is an article with more detail about using public domain music.

How do I find out who owns the song rights?
If you don’t know the publisher of the song you want to license, you should contact the major Performance Rights Organizations like BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC.  These groups have large databases of composer and associated publisher song titles.  Another place to try is The Harry Fox Agency. This company mainly grants mechanical rights (for recording and existing song), but their database is also huge.

Music Clearance
As you can see from the process described above, licensing music can be a time-intensive, form-laden, and expensive process.  There are companies that just specialize in finding and processing the paperwork to get you the rights to a song. If you enter the term “Music Clearance” in a search engine, many music clearance companies will appear.  If you have a music supervisor on your project, he or she will also be experienced in music clearance.

A Licensing Alternative – Production Music
Using Production Music (also referred to as Stock Music), is the easiest way to quickly license music to use legally in your work. Production Music fills a niche for producers who don’t have a million dollar music budget and can’t afford to license a major hit song.  Production Music gives the smaller, independent producer the ability to use music soundtracks in his or her production.

Is Production Music under copyright?
Production music is protected by both the (C) and (P) copyrights.  When you buy a track from a production music library, you’ll receive a license agreement which grants you both synchronization and master use rights. It’s simple and easy to do.  For instance, at the UniqueTracks Stock Music site, your license and recorded master track can be downloaded right to your computer upon purchase.

Stock Production Music is not copyright-free as some have termed it.  It is fully protected by copyright law. With production music, you get the ease of licensing.  You don’t have to contact several sources to seek sync and master use licenses.  These licenses come bundled together and the rights granted are very wide.  A typical stock music license grants you permission to use the music in TV broadcasts, TV & Radio advertising, Internet streaming (great for YouTube videos) music-on-hold, apps & video games, in-store broadcast, and as corporate trade show products and giveaways.  Here is an example of a typical stock music license agreement.

Can I license a famous song from a production music library?
There are no production music pop hits.  You won’t find an Eminem track in a royalty free production music library.  To use an Eminem cut you would have to negotiate a license with Interscope Records.  That’s not to say you can’t find Hip Hop tracks in production music libraries but you won’t find current or past pop hits.

Unlike a pop song, production music is composed to be used specifically as background music. It is usually instrumental, with no vocals or lyrics, and is similar to a film soundtrack.

The simplicity of licensing makes it a perfect choice for corporate videos, Flash animations, Game apps, Music-On-Hold, PowerPoint presentations, independent film, multimedia applications, – virtually anywhere where music is helpful but where the project budget doesn’t include hundreds of thousands of dollars to license expensive songs.


Premium Stock Music for Film, TV, Advertising and Interactive. Editor-selected, Easy Search, Fast Results  UniqueTracks has a vast library of music loops and grooves plus a large selection of classical production music available for licensing into your production.


Royalty Free Music, Sound Effects, and Animated Video Backgrounds