The Musical Public Domain in 2021

Monday, February 22, 2021

When we said goodbye to 2020, we said hello to a host of composers whose music entered the public domain on January 1, 2021. This means that the people in question died long enough ago that copyright protection has expired for their works and there is no law prohibiting the use, reuse, publishing, or otherwise building upon their creative ideas.

Since copyright varies by country, national laws dictate what has entered the public domain. Throughout most of Europe and in other countries where copyright expires after the death of the author plus 70 years, composers who died in 1950 are now in the public domain in those countries. Note that this refers to a composer’s music, and other elements of any given creative work, such as the lyrics to a song, may still be under copyright.

The United States is different: in the US, anything published in 1925 or before is in the public domain there, regardless of date of death.

This leads to potentially complicated (and confusing) situations when exploring digitized collections online, because one might find a copyright-free digitized score by Arnold Schönberg on an American website, even though the composer’s works are still under copyright in the European Union. (Schönberg’s turn is next year.) It is important to be aware of and respect copyright laws, even in the digital environment.

This all means that libraries and archives will have a new slate of composers whose works they can scan and add to their digital collections.

In 2021, we welcome these RISM composers to the public domain in the EU. If we find out about initiatives to digitize their works, we will of course link to the digital copies in the RISM records. The table can also be viewed and downloaded here.

This page from Duke University and also Wikipedia have good overviews of what is now copyright-free across the creative arts spectrum.

Image: Kurt Weill, probably the most famous in our Class of 2021. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0119 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

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