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Public domain

3 min read

What is the public domain?

A musical work, performance, or sound recording is in the public domain when it is no longer protected under copyright law.

When does a musical work, performance or sound recording enter the public domain?

Original , , and are protected only during their respective , so once the term of protection has expired, they enter the public domain. Since the term of protection varies in different countries, a musical work, , or sound recording can, at times, be protected in certain countries and in the public domain in other countries.

In some countries, musical works, performances, and sound recordings expressing local or traditional knowledge might no longer be protected under copyright law. The underlying traditional elements can be protected perpetually under special legislation as , which means that those traditional elements might not enter the public domain in some countries, even if the are unknown or the term of or protection has expired.

Check out WIPO’s page on Traditional Cultural Expressions to learn more.

A musical work, performance, or sound recording can also enter the public domain if it is dedicated to the public domain. This means the choose not to assert their rights and instead allow anyone to use what they have created. This is similar, but different, from a since dedicating to the public domain means you irrevocably renounce exercising your rights in your musical work, performance, or sound recording, whereas a creative commons license subjects free uses to certain conditions and may sometimes be revoked.

Qualifying a musical work, performance, or sound recording as being in the public domain only applies to . In many countries, are perpetual and irrevocable and thus subsist even when the musical work, performance, or sound recording is in the public domain.

Visit our pages on Economic Rights and Moral Rights to learn more.

How can musical works and sound recording in the public domain be used?

Once a musical work or sound recording has entered the public domain, anyone may freely use it, with some important restrictions. For example, creators can perform, record, , or adapt a musical work in the public domain. However, they can’t claim to be the songwriters of that musical work and instead should always credit the original creators, for example, an orchestra playing Bach. They also cannot modify or use public domain works and recordings in ways that would damage the reputation of the original creators.


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Image credit: Martin Fabricius Rasmussen