What is “Public Domain” – How Does It Apply to Song Lyrics

2449130649_707c05701eAny kind of work that is “in the public domain” can be used freely without compensation or permission. However, there should, at all times, credit be given to the creators to avoid plagiarism and out of respect. Plagiarism is a professional or moral standard rather that a legal  claim.

When we speak of “ Public Domain Works” we can distinguish 5 main categories:

Public Works that have expired copyright. For example Leonardo daVinci’s Mona Lisa, Mozart’s sonatas, and Shakespeare’s plays. Different countries have different regulations, but any work that is created and copyrighted in America, and that was initially published before 1923 is considered to be in the public domain. There are exceptions however, because the US Congress granted some favors to corporations like Disney and most of their copyrighted work is allowed to be considered to be in the public domain before 2019.

But don’t mistake copyright with trademarks that do not expire. Trademarks last for as long as they will be used for the identification of sources of services or goods without becoming “generic” in a way like ping pong or aspirin. So it would be wrong to assume that trademarks that have been used for over 95 years are “in the public domain”. In general you are allowed to mention trademark in your material, but never use a trademark as a brand name.

Works that cannot be copyrighted. There are numerous things that can not be copyrighted. Things like movie titles, song titles, book titles, place names, ideas, methods, procedures, names of people, concepts, raw data, principles, and all sorts of objective data and information are not copyrightable or protected, so always in what we call the “public domain”. So even when the lyrics of a song are protected by copyright, you still can use the song title in your work.

Works that are, via Creative Commons licenses, donated to the public domain. To indicate that a work was donated to the public domain, creators can use theso-called Creative Commons C0 mark. The Creative Commons includes a mark that is similar for works that already were in the public domain.

Works of which copyright was lost. This is the category that applies to works published , without notice, before March 1st, 1989, and of which copyright claims have gone lost or of which earlier copyright registration had not been renewed. This is a very difficult category to figure out, so at all times consult a highly experienced attorney.

Works that are owned or created by the U.S. Government.  This category includes millions of recordings, images, reports, personal narratives, and numerous other works are displayed on the website of the Library of Congress. Practically everything that is available at the Library of Congress rests in the public domain. The Library’s collection includes recordings of gospel, folk, and blues performances from the early 1930’s, original Woody Guthrie recordings, and quite a few famous photographs by renown Dorothea Lang from her creative 1930’s period. The library forms an outstanding source of inspiration and information that is freely available thanks to the Public Domain concept. For more information, check out the website LOC.gov. 

Public Domain Song lyrics

Expiration of copyright is the most common reason that works are falling in the public domain. All songs that are initially recorded or published in the US prior to January 1, 1923 are considered to be in the public domain. There are many early blues and rag time songs that fall in this category. To give you a few examples:

  • Swing Low Sweet Chariot
  • Take Me Out To the Ball Gameby Ed Meeker
  • Jelly Roll Bluesby Jelly Roll Martin

Please be aware that the public domain merely includes the lyrics and the sheet music. Recording or publications of this type of songs that were made after December 31, 1922 have copyright protection, and arrangements and any lyrics that were made or included after that date, are copyrighted as well.

Music that was first recorded or published in the U.S. in the period 1923 – 1977 falls in another category. Here, copyright expiration is depending on whether copyrights were registered and copyright notices properly placed, and whether the copyright registrations were renewed. Of course you can try to find out by yourself (or hire a specialist) to see if a work’s copyright had gone lost, but in general it will appear to be easier and simpler to assume that your will require permission.

In this e-book, I am only covering the U.S. If you want to use lyrics or songs that were initially published or recorded in other countries, be aware that in that case, laws of those counties will be applicable.

Where can you find public domain song

There are a several websites that collect and list songs in the public domain, and some even sell reprints of such songs. Beware that some of these websites also list songs and other works that still are copyrighted, so make sure you double-check the works’ copyright status before using any of it. In the U.S. the rule applies that only songs or works initially recorded or published before January 1, 1923 fall into the public domain category. You may readily assume that all works initially recorded or published in or after 1923 are copyright-protected.

So please, before you download anything from these sites, take a good look at their copyright and reproduction policies to avoid future disappointment or problems. Some website are requiring you to give them credit, while other sites may be requesting reproduction fees.

The Public Domain Information Project includes a website  that offers great and affluent information on music that fall in the category public domain. The organization’s website lists tens of thousands of songs and music titles within the public domain, and they offer also reprints at very modest prices. The organization additionally offers a variety of “stock” music for licensing at very modest prices as well.

The Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University includes the “Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection” that contains over 29,000 works of popular American Music. Check out this website:  to get fully informed. The Library’s collection spans the period 1780 – 1980 and is documenting America during the nineteenth-century through its collection of popular music. The Library is especially known for its music collection from the period marked by military conflicts from the War of 1812 through World War I.

Harvard University houses the Loeb Music Library that owns a music collection of more than 30,000 titles from the period 1560 – 1830. For more information check out: Loeb Music Library, it  provides the Virtual Collection which includes many early and first editions and manuscript editions of 18th and early 19th centuries works by Mozart, J.S. Bach and other Bach family members, Schubert and quite a few other composers. The collection also includes multiple versions of 19th century op