Classical Music/Public Domain



I am a little puzzled as why it can be so difficult for a publishing company to ascertain for me whether one of its works is in the Public Domain. I'm not sure that I trust or believe the correspondence I received. Perhaps you can shed some light on this for me. It is regarding a British classical piano piece composed in 1924 that I want to record. Here is part of the correspondence from the company. (I have purposely omitted the name of the piece and other bracketed items):
(Most recent emails at the top)

Dear David,

Iím very sorry that we canít be more definitive.  Part of the issue is that this is a title that was composed well before [Company] came into existence, so we donít have a full paper trail on file of the copyright history of the piece.

Best wishes,

[John Doe]
Licensing Manager

From: David
Sent: 25 September 2014 15:56
To: xxx
Subject: Re: [piano piece]


Thanks for your reply. I was hoping for something more definitive because I like doing things the right way. I had checked Wikipedia which states "lifetime + 70 years" for both the U.K. and the U.S. (and therefore PD after 2004) but I wanted to get confirmation from [Company].

I kind of understand what you are saying - that there is some complexity in the research process, and perhaps (I am reading in between the lines here) because of the brevity or relative obscurity of the piece, it's simply not worth the effort and cost.  If I commercially record it and (in the unlikely case) it was found not to be PD, then I might be asked to pay a fee.  What you are basically telling me, then, is "no worries." Correct?



On Sep 25, 2014, at 2:22 AM, [John Doe] wrote:

Dear David,

The ["piano piece"] is in the public domain worldwide with the possible exception of the USA. Even if it is protected in the USA - ascertaining this is a costly process for us and we have not yet taken this step - it is unlikely to affect your plans.

Kind regards,

[John Doe]
Licensing Manager

-----Original Message-----
From: David
Sent: 24 September 2014 14:41
To: Information
Subject: ["piano piece"]


Can you tell me if ["piano piece"] (composed 1924) is in the public domain? I am interested in performing and/or recording it. It is part of a collection of pieces published by [Company] entitled The Piano Music of [composer].

I can understand your frustration.

I am not a copyright attorney, so what I tell you is strictly based on my personal experience.

I THINK the reason you can't get a straight answer is that the death plus 75 years was enacted in 1978 (I believe). I believe that works copyrighted before then had some complicated process of copyright (28 years followed by a mandatory renewal?). I believe also that for a few pre-1978 works here and there, the renewals (undertaken either by the composer, the estate, or the publisher, whoever owned the copyright) may have put the protected date out beyond the death plus 75 years. And it seems the law changed a few times, not just that once.

It sounds like you want answers to two questions. First, how can you know for sure? And second, what happens if you are wrong?

For the first, you could start by visiting the US copyright office website. ( It depends, I believe, on whether works were registered as copyrighted. Not everyone pays to register works, but unregistered works ARE copyrighted -- according to law, I believe, a work is copyrighted as soon as it is completed, whether marked as such or whether registered. Registration is the sure-fire way to prove the copyright, and the only way, I believe, to get into the official copyright register. HOWEVER, this seems to apply, from what I've heard, only to post-1978 works.  

Here is a document from their website that seems to be on point for you:

I've not used the site much, but other parts of it may be helpful. You can also peruse the law itself, plus their explanations of the law. After that, you might have a better sense of things. Or not.

The next step would be to look into consulting with a copyright lawyer. Google searching will help you find one in your area -- though getting recommendations from people who have used such lawyers is always better. If you can find someone you think you can trust, it might be worth a one-time payment for a one-time visit to spend 30-60 minutes talking through the issues, finding out the costs of doing it right, the potential liabilities of not doing it right.

That's the full extent of what I can recommend. Good luck with this,

David Froom

Classical Music

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David Froom


Classical Music,Modern Classical Music Composition


College Professor, Composer

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