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

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