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Music: Copyright and Plagiarism: Public Domain

What is Public Domain?

The Public Domain is a collection of information where intellectual property protection does not apply. When copyright expires, creative works enter the public domain. Facts and government produced documents are not eligible for copyright protection, and therefore automatically enter the public domain. Anything in the public domain may be used by anyone without permission, and without the payment of a license fee.

-Public Knowledge


Expansion of U.S. Copyright Term

Tom Bell's graph showing extension of U.S. copyright term over time

Sound Recordings in the Public Domain

With the Music Modernization Act of 2018, as of January 1, 2022, sound recordings made before 1923 are now in the public domain.  Below is a table of guidelines around when different years of sound recordings will enter the public domain.

Sound Recordings Enter the Public Domain

Before 1923

January 1, 2022


Release Year + 95 yrs + 5 yrs

Ex:  1923 = 1923+95+5 = 2023
Ex:  1946 = 1946+95+5 = 2046


Release Year + 95 yrs + 15 yrs

Ex:  1947+95+15 = 2057
Ex: 1956+95+15 = 2066

1957 to 2/15/1972

February 15, 2067

After 2/15/1972

95 years from release or 120 years
from recording date, whichever is shorter.

This table is from which is a good overview on the topic of public domain!

Copyright Duration

Copyright Duration

  • By limiting the duration of a copyright, we can ensure that others are eventually able to use a work for the creation of new works.

Date of Copyright

When to Renew?

Duration of Copyright



Copyright has expired. The work is in the public domain.


During the 28th year after the original copyright was registered

95 years from the date of the original copyright, only if the protection was renewed in the 28th year. If copyright was not renewed, the work is in the public domain.


Renewal during the 28th year is optional, otherwise renewal is automatic.

95 years from the date of the original copyright.

Created before 1978, but not registered


Original author’s life, plus 70 years, OR to December 31, 2002, whichever is longer.

Anonymous, pseudonymous, and corporate-owned works created after 1977, or created but not registered before 1978


95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is sooner.



Original author’s life, plus 70 years.


Outside the U.S.

  • Works created and published outside of the U.S. are protected under different rights.
  • In general, any work created or published in a foreign country on a date that would result in it being in public domain as of January 1, 1996 is now in the public domain.


-Public Knowledge




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