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Musicians Insitute Library

Music Copyright and Licensing

This is a guide to basic copyright and licensing for musicians. NOTE: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. FOR SPECIFIC INFORMATION ABOUT COPYRIGHT OR LICENSING PLEASE SEEK LEGAL COUNSEL.

Copyright Duration

Copyright Duration is fairly complicated in the United States because it changed so often. The duration of copyright depends on what year it was published, where it was published, and sometimes whether or not the person who published it is still alive. It also depends on whether a person gave notice (which just means putting "© YEAR NAME" on the work) or renewed the work (which can be found in the same publication as the registrations). Please note that this is not the full list of durations, but a summary of the most common durations referenced. Please see the Cornell Guide (below) for a more in-depth coverage of copyright duration.

Copyright Durations in the United States:

  • Never published and never registered, but created in the United States
    • Unpublished: Author's life + 70 years
    • Unpublished where the author is unknown, a death date cannot be determined, or was authored by a corporation: 120 years from creation
  • Published in the United States
    • Before 1924: PUBLIC DOMAIN
    • 1924-1963
      • If published without notice*: PUBLIC DOMAIN
      • If published with notice, but not renewed after 28 years*: PUBLIC DOMAIN
      • If published with noticed and renewed after 28 years*: 95 years after publication date
    • 1964-1977
      • If published without notice*: PUBLIC DOMAIN
      • If published with notice (no renewal required): 95 years after publication date
    • 1978- 1 March 1989
      • Published without notice and without registration within 5 years**: PUBLIC DOMAIN
      • Published without notice but with registration within 5 years**: Author's Life + 70 years. If author is a corporate body, it's 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
      • Published with notice**: Author's Life + 70 years. If author is a corporate body, it's 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
    • After 1989: Author's Life + 70 years. If author is a corporate body, it's 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
  • Abroad
    • Any country who has signed the Berne Convention has a minimum copyright duration of Author's Life + 50 years. However, some countries have longer durations. Check here for a full list of copyright terms in foreign countries.
    • NOTE: The United States does not automatically protect copyrighted material from other countries, only those who have signed international agreements that the U.S. is a part of. You can check whether a country is a part of an international treaty here.

* see the University of Pennsylvania List of Copyright Catalogs

** see the Library of Congress Online Catalog for Copyright Entries

Copyright Duration for Sound Recordings

Copyright duration for sound recordings has changed in the last year due to the passing of the Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act (or Music Modernization Act or MMA for short). Title II of this law covers the protection of sound recording pre-1972, which were not federally protected previously. Here are the current durations for sound recordings in the United States. As above, please consult the Cornell Guide to Copyright Durations at the top of the page for a more in-depth view on copyright durations, as this will only cover the basics.

Please note that all durations only apply to the sound recording itself , which is separate from the copyright duration for the composition or text within the recording:

  • Before 1923: Will be in the Public Domain 1 January 2022
  • 1923-1946: 100 years from publication (Will be in the Public Domain 1 January 2024-2047)
  • 1947-1956: 110 years from publication (Will be in the Public Domain 1 January 2048-2057)
  • 1957-14 February 1972: Will be in the Public Domain 15 February 2067
  • 15 February 1972-1978
    • Without notice: PUBLIC DOMAIN
    • With notice: 95 years from publication (2068 at the earliest)
  • 1978-1 March 1989
    • Without notice: PUBLIC DOMAIN
    • With notice: Author's Life + 70 years. If author is a corporate body, it's 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
  • After 1 March 1989: Author's Life + 70 years. If author is a corporate body, it's 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

For sound recordings published abroad, see the Cornell Guide to Copyright Duration linked above. 

 

Please note that this guide is merely to educate people on the law and does not contain any legal advice. If you have a legitimate question about copyright, please consult with a lawyer.