A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. The reasons that the work is not protected include:

  • the term of copyright for the work has expired
  • the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright
  • the work is a work of the U.S. Government.

Things to note:

  • Be careful when using songs that appear to be public domain. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s public domain.
  • An arrangement of a public domain song can be copyrighted. For example: the song “Rockin’ Robin” is in the public domain, but the arrangement made famous by Michael Jackson is under copyright.

The current status of a work’s copyright protection in the United States is as follows:

WORKS PUBLISHED 1922 & Prior:

These works are in the Public Domain.

WORKS PUBLISHED 1923-1963:

Work is under copyright when published with notice.

The original term is 28 years, which could be extended to a total of 95 years from publication (first renewal of 47 years w/an extension of 20 years, for a total renewal of 67 years). If not so renewed, or if published without notice, the work is now in public domain.

Under the 1909 Act, works published without notice went into the public domain upon publication. Works published without notice between January 1, 1978 and March 1, 1989 (the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act) retained copyright only if efforts to correct the accidental omission of notice was made within five years, such as by placing notice on unsold copies. 17 U.S.C. § 405.

WORKS PUBLISHED 1964-1977:

Work is under copyright when published with notice.

Work enters the public domain 95 years after the publication of the work (Original term is 28 years, with an automatic renewal of 67 years)

WORKS PUBLISHED Before 1978 but not published:

Work enters the public domain 70 years after the death of the longest surviving member, or on 12/31/2002, whichever date is greater.

Protected from 1/1/1978, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright.

WORKS CREATED Before 1978 but published between 1978 & 2002:

Work enters the public domain 70 years after the death of the longest surviving member, or on 12/31/2047, whichever date is greater.

Protected from 1/1/1978, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright.

WORKS CREATED After January 1, 1978:

Work is under copyright when fixed in a tangible form (written, recorded, etc.)

Work enters the public domain 70 years after the death of the longest surviving author.

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