The Musical Public Domain in 2023

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Every year, the public domain grows, enriching the pool of works that can be drawn upon to inspire creativity. In law, the “public domain” refers to works without copyright, usually because copyright has expired. In the European Union, the works of people who died in 1952 are now in the public domain.

This means that people 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 1952 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 1927 or before is in the public domain there, regardless of date of death. This might lead to potential confusion if a digitized score is found on an American website, even though the composer’s works are still under copyright in the European Union. Prominent examples this year include music by Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein II: their pre-1928 works are in the public domain in the US but the composers still have copyright protection in the EU. It is important to be aware of and respect copyright laws, even in the digital environment.

Whether in the EU, the US, or elsewhere, this all means that libraries and archives have a new slate of composers whose works they can scan and add to their digital collections.

In 2023, we welcome these 57 composers with sources in RISM 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.

Image: Giovanni Tebaldini, one of the many composers entering the public domain in 2023, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

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