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Understanding Music Copyright and the Public Domain

One of the goals of this study group is to allow every participant to be able to have access to the music we're going to be researching, listening to, and analyzing. To do this, we'll need to take advantage of classical music within the public domain.

There are two steps to this task:

  1. Spend some time learning about music copyright, the public domain, "free" music, etc.
  2. Find resources for accessing music within the public domain

When you're done researching, write about what you've learned and the resources you've found and share it with the group.

Task Discussion

  • richard   Nov. 28, 2011, 10:06 p.m.

    I thought that this was interesting, linked from a story in the New York Times about the International Music Score Library Project ( which maintains a repository of digitized music scores in the public domain or under Creative Commons licensing. The story mentions the Borromeo String Quartet, who use IMSLP resources in performance- often using MACs or iPads to display the scores instead of traditional print copies. :

    As well as scores, IMSLP also provides recordings under CC and in public domain. You can search by composer at this site:

  • Justine Lavoie   Nov. 28, 2011, 10:30 p.m.
    In Reply To:   richard   Nov. 28, 2011, 10:06 p.m.

    Very cool resources. I'm adding the site to our Resource Links, too. I really need to subscribe to the NYT soon!

  • Justine Lavoie   Nov. 26, 2011, 11:47 a.m.

    Before now, I’ve never really done too much research into intellectual property law or the public domain, so the specifics are all pretty new to me. As an artist I had an understanding of copyright law, and in the case of my art I’m very restrictive about it’s use. On my deviantart page, for example, I watermark all of my work because I don’t want people to take it and put it elsewhere without my permission. deviantart is actually pretty progressive in that it allows users who submit art to attribute different types of creative commons licenses to their work if they so choose. I think that’s how I first got exposed to the creative commons and thinking about copyright and licensing.

    For a copyright/cc/public domain beginner, I’d recommend reading this part of a FAQ on the Creative Commons website. The Creative Commons licensing page also has a nice video that explains the licenses themselves. This is a general overview of how it all works, but for music things are a little different. I think PD info has a pretty good FAQ that sums up how it works and gives some important dates. One thing to note (which I didn’t realize and feel silly for now), is that all of the research I’m doing applies to the USA only! I’d be interested to hear about how other countries’ copyright and public domain music laws work.

    There’s also free music, “which is either in the public domain or licensed under a free license by the artist or copyright holder themselves, often as a method of promotion.” Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has released two of his albums under a Creative Commons license (BY-NC-SA), which was very interesting to me. Open music, a subset of free music, is the concept of “open source” applied to music, and seems to be more permissive of derivative works and collaboration.

    From my research, it seems like everything I want to listen to has a composition in the public domain, but very few of them have a recording in the public domain. So what do we do? Well, there are a few resources. I think the immediate response is to try to search youtube, and while this will probably be the quickest and easiest way to find something, there’s a catch. Since youtube has a duration limit for its videos and because there are usually a number of movements in each piece, the youtube listening experience isn’t as good as having the full-length album or sound files. Still, it may be our only way to find certain pieces and it a good fallback resource.

    As far as searching the internet, Wikipedia:Sound/list is a very good place to start, especially for older classical pieces. The Internet Archive is pretty good too. I got good results from searching like this: “(collection:opensource_audio OR mediatype:opensource_audio) AND -mediatype:collection AND classical”. Musopen is a non-profit that have a large database of free classical music to listen to as well. I’m pretty sure our public libraries will have a good selection, too. I’ll be going some time this week to test that theory.