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MMD > Archives > December 1996 > 1996.12.06 > 02Prev  Next

Re: Music Copyright
By Matthew Caulfield

Several recent postings about copyright issues prompts this reply.

[ Editor's Note: refer to
[ Digest 961121, Andy LaTorre
[ Digest 961122, Angelo Rulli
[ Digest 961125, Bill Jelen

These points do not apply to anything created after December 31, 1977. They do apply to musical compositions (as well as other copyrightable creations), which would have been fixed for registration in the form of sheet music. They do not apply to the performances of music fixed in any medium, whether phonograph record, music roll, or tape recording.

Federal copyright protection was never extended to sound recordings until the Copyright Act of 1976 gave such protection to sound recordings as separate from the underlying musical composition. Most provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect January 1, 1978, though there was some interim protection given to creations meeting certain conditions prior to that date. But keeping it simple, the first fact to remember is that any tune written before January 1, 1921, is currently and unequivocally in the public domain.

So on January 1, l997, anything created before January 1, 1922 will be in the public domain -- and so on, year by year, until in the year 2053 there will be no valid copyrights left which were granted under the old copyright laws, only those secured under the Copyright Act of 1976, where the duration of copyright is more complicated than it was under prior acts. (I can outline be interested in the current duration provisions, but I hope no one is.)

The 75-year duration for works created before January 1, 1978, applied only if a work was properly copyrighted AND the 26-year original copyright term was renewed by the copyright holder in the 26th year of the original term for a second and final 26-year term. If that was not done, the work entered the public domain at the end of the first 26-year term. So there are many tunes composed well after 1921 which are in the public domain because they did not enjoy enough commercial success to warrant the trouble of renewing copyright. The only sure way to know is to search copyright records.

Angelo Rulli's suggestion to use the Harry Fox Office is a clever one. But anyone can go to the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress and do his own checking. Or have the Copyright Office do it. The fee may seem high but it takes the office only 10 minutes or so to do the search. I can search a limited number of tunes for anyone needing help at no charge. (What am I letting myself in for?! My office is one floor above the Copyright Office, but ...!) There are also published sets of copyright registrations deposited in various large libraries around the country; but due to the nature of the indexing, they are often not handy to use for searching musical compositions.

The 1898-1937 musical composition card file is much easier to use if one knows the exact tune title. Millions of tunes were copyrighted, making Andy's idea of a central registry of public- domain musical compositions an absolute impossibility.

As said, sound recordings are a whole different kettle of fish. Does anyone need to know about them? Very complex issues there.

Matthew Caulfield
Library of Congress

(Message sent Fri 6 Dec 1996, 18:13:13 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Copyright, Music

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