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How long does music copyright protection last?

How long does music copyright protection last?

Copyrighting your music is an essential step towards protecting your creative work, making sure you have legal rights over your own music, and eliminating the possibility that someone else might take credit for your ideas. When you copyright your music, you earn the rights to distribute, perform, reproduce, and license your compositions, and get the royalties that are rightfully yours. Taking the time to gain the copyrights to your songs might seem painstaking, but it can have a big impact down the line. 

Why should you copyright your music?

The process is quite straightforward with the U.S. Copyright Office, and you only have to pay a one-time fee to upload your music catalog. By taking this step, you create a legal and financial safeguard and ensure that no one else gets to use your work without giving you proper credit, and that you’re the only one entitled to receive royalties for this work. In case of infringement, aka if another artist uses one of your songs without permission, copyrights can make or break your legal case, and you can stand to earn a hefty sum if you can prove that the songs belong to you. 

How long are you covered by copyright protection in the US?

However, many independent artists wonder how long music copyright protection lasts, and if it’s even worth going through the process of copyrighting in the first place. The answer is that it’s completely worth it, because copyright protection won’t expire anytime soon if you establish your copyrights now. The length of ownership for a song copyright will depend on when the song was first created.

  • Music published or registered for copyright before January 1st, 1923, are in the public domain in the U.S.;
  • Music created and published or registered before January 1st, 1978, is protected for 75 since it was published with a copyright notice, or 75 years from the date of the registration;
  • Music created on or after January 1st, 1978 is protected for 70 years after the death of the author. In the case of two or more authors, copyright protection ends 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. In the case of works made for hire, copyright protection ends 95 years since publication, or 120 years since creation.
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Special copyright rules

There are special copyright protection rules when it comes to works made for hire, works with more than one author, works published before 1964, musical recordings, and unpublished works.

When a song has a single author, or creator, that song is protected under copyright for the entire life of the author, plus an additional 70 years after their death. When there are multiple authors for a song, it will be protected by copyrights until the death of the last surviving author, plus another 70 years. In the case of works made for hire, copyright protection lasts 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever date is earliest. The same rule applies to musical works that are published anonymously; if the name of the author is disclosed and communicated to the U.S. Copyright Office, however, the rule will change and the copyright protection will cover the life of the author and another 70 years after their death. 

A piece of music or creative work is considered published when its author makes it available to the general public, in an unrestricted manner. It’s still possible to distribute music without it being published first, with certain restrictions in place on where it can be shown or performed or what can be done with it. 

What about music in the public domain?

Music that is in the public domain in the U.S. can be reproduced, distributed, and performed without permission or royalties distribution. This type of music, usually recorded or registered before 1923, is not protected by copyright and is free to use by the general public as part of the country’s cultural heritage. 

A good example is the scandal surrounding the iconic song ‘Happy Birthday.’ For a long time, Warner/Chappell Music claimed that it held the copyright to the popular song, and they consequently charged licensing fees for use of the songs in films, public performances, and TV shows. This claim was highly controversial and intensely debated, and contested by artists who wanted to use the popular song in their works. 

Ultimately, in 2016, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the song should be in the public domain, given its long history and widespread use. This meant that Warner/Chappell could no longer charge licensing fees or earn royalties for use of the song. It was revealed that the original authors of ‘Happy Birthday’ never submitted copyright protection for this work, and Warner/Chappell had to pay back $14 million to all the artists who paid licensing fees to feature the song. 

However, you still need to be careful when using public domain songs in your own works, because while the musical composition might be free to use, including the lyrics and themes, the specific recording of that musical work might be under copyright protection. In this case, you’ll be required to get permission from the recording artist and they’ll be entitled to royalties. 

If you don't have the time or energy to do all the copyrighting work, we can handle the process for you, hassle-free, so you can focus on expanding your music career.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for music to go out of copyright?

The duration of copyright protection for music varies depending on factors like the creation date and the copyright laws of the specific country. In the United States, for works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, after which the work enters the public domain. For works created before 1978, the rules are more complex, with varying renewal and registration requirements. It's crucial to check the specific copyright laws of your country and the creation date of the music in question to determine when it will go out of copyright. Copyright terms may also change due to legislation, so it's essential to stay updated on the latest regulations.

What music has no copyright?

Music that has no copyright is typically music that has entered the public domain. Music in the public domain includes compositions for which copyright has expired or was never held, meaning they are free to be used by anyone for any purpose, such as classical music by composers like Beethoven or Bach, traditional folk songs, and music with expired copyright protection. The specific music that falls into this category can vary by country and the applicable copyright laws, so it's important to research the copyright status of a particular musical work based on your jurisdiction and circumstances.

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Gregory Walfish
Co-founder of Xposure Music, Gregory Walfish stands at the intersection of music, tech, and culture. With a software engineering background, he's passionate about artist development and technology.

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