public domain songs

Public Domain and Copyrighted Works: Mechanical Licensing for Silly Love Songs

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Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs … and what’s wrong with that? If you’re planning to use a previously written composition in your efforts, though, you may want to ask: “What constitutes a public domain composition?”

This post was updated February 2017.

The U.S. Copyright Office defines public domain as: “A work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection.” In the United States, “all works published in the United States before January 1, 1923, are in the public domain.” You can learn more by reading the Us Copyright Office’s publication, Duration of Copyright.

Many artists and labels who follow the “Golden Rule of Licensing” – if you don’t own or control it, you need a license to use it – know that public domain compositions are one of the few exceptions since tracks within the public domain don’t require a mechanical license or royalty payments made to music publishers.

One important point to consider: even though a song may be found in the public domain, a copyrighted arrangement of that song may exist, which does require a license – so always check first. An excellent rule of thumb is, if you used sheet music to learn it, you can often find the copyright information there.

The songs listed below are just a small sample of love songs that are in the public domain.

“I Love You Truly” (Carrie Jacobs Bond)
“Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (Leo Friedman, Beth Slater Whitson)
“I Can’t Tell Why I Love You, But I Do” (Will Cobb, Gus Edwards)
“For Me and My Gal” (George W. Meyer, Edgar Leslie, and E. Ray Goetz
“You Made Me Love You” (James Monaco, Joseph McCarthy)
“Sweet Adeline” (Harry Armstrong, Richard Gerard)
“I Used to Love You, But It’s All Over Now” (Albert Von Tilzer, Lew Brown)
“America, I Love You” (Archie Gottler, Edgar Leslie)
“Because You Were An Old Sweetheart Of Mine” (Maurice L. Jacobs, Harry I. Robinson)
“Daddy Has A Sweetheart And Mother Is Her Name” (Dave Stamper, Gene Buck)
“Sweetheart Days” (J. Anton Dailey, I.W. Helser)

Numerous classical works, including: “Gymnopedie” (Erik Satie) and “Clair de Lune” (Claude Debussy) are in the public domain.

You should find out if your cover song is “Public Domain”?

Many classic love songs that are presumed to be in the public domain are in fact copyrighted, so make sure to double-check your sources before deciding a track is public domain. PD Info Online is an excellent starting point if the liner notes and copyright information are unavailable. In addition, a simple Google search with “written by” and “published” or “copyright date” alongside the song title often presents information related to the song’s initial copyright date. This is by no means an exhaustive method for determining public domain, but can be helpful.

Here are just a few more classic love songs that would require a mechanical license:

“At Last” (Mack Gordon, Harry Warren)
“Can’t Help Falling In Love” (George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore)
“My Funny Valentine” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart)
“Embraceable You” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)
“Night and Day” (Cole Porter)
“The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson)
“You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher)
“I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton)
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Cole Porter)
“True Love Ways” (Buddy Holly)

Securing a mechanical license can be a difficult task, but Easy Song Licensing helps artists, school groups, choirs, record labels, and more in clearing the appropriate rights and paying songwriters and publishers.

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27 thoughts on “Public Domain and Copyrighted Works: Mechanical Licensing for Silly Love Songs

  1. I really love this blog post and respect a creator’s right to derive income from their creation. However, I am really sad to understand that I will never be able to perform publicly, legally, here in Australia. The amount of time and effort it would take to contact the copyright holder of the hundreds of songs in my repertoire, obtain permission to maybe or maybe not in the future perform their song on piano, with possibly 0 to 50 people in attendance, for possibly free (I don’t need the income but wish there was more live music in Australia) or possibly for a few bucks an hour….well I just cannot see myself doing this. And now I understand why there is literally zero live music in the Sydney suburbs. I also guess I should be worried about getting sued if I have lost the original sheet music of something I photocopied for ease of use in a binder.

    It is too bad that nobody developed some sort of universal licensing so that we could all direct a portion of our income to the artistic community and it then be shared. I would be happy to buy a Cole Porter license, a Gershwin Brothers license, a Rogers & Hammerstein & Hart license………

    1. You can perform live without obtaining any of these permissions, the club will be covered under its blanket agreement with the PROs. This only applies if you want to release any song written by someone else on a recording.

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  4. As a Internet DJ that play all style of music how can you play other Artist music on the Internet Radio.  It It ok to request a permission to play their music by contacting the Artist or the company that  song Licening?

  5. Interlectual property such as a song and everything related to its creation, is protected under its creators rules and regulation its a personal thing and it comes from within, a song must be captured at the moment of inspiration or its gone posibly forever if not written down ,this is like harvesting life its the responsability of every authors and original artist who take music serios to protect their work by experienced publisures that not only help protect your music but also provide everything you need to have reconigtion ,its school its an academy and its always teaching us how we can protect ourselfs from those who lack the knowlege t survive in the reality of the matter

  6. A correction to your comment on the song “Can’t Help Falling In Love” which you say requires a mechanical license: The song itself is in fact a popular 17th century tune from France which was reworked with new lyrics and recorded by Elvis in the early 1960’s. Writers also took a civil war tune “Aura Lee” and turned it into “Love Me Tender”

    Refraining from using the new title / lyrics, both songs remain public domain.

  7. Of all these comments, the most salient for me is Curtis Nelson’s point about which aspects of music are copyrightable. I find that the way the mood of the lyric structure relates to the chording and full arrangement to be the most important yet most elusive aspect of music. As such, I have found myself using the exact chord progression of others but where precisely does one draw the line?

  8. Great information and tips from all the readers. I write poetry, but sometimes tinker with songwriting (for me, it’s not easy getting the “bridge” of a song down). I’d love to have just one hit, whether I sing it or someone else.

  9. I’m curious, hopefully someone can answer this question. If I use a sample from a copyrighted melody with no intention to profit by it am I in violation in some way. If my intent is to use it for exposure only am I libel in some way, are there any repercussions.

  10. This article overplays the importance of clearing the rights to use a piece of music without detailing who really needs to worry about this. “If you don’t own or control it, you need a license to use it.” That gives the incorrect impression that this applies to every musician who’s ever played someone else’s songs. But it doesn’t mention what “use” means. For example, if you want to sit around the campfire singing “Thriller” you don’t need anyone’s permission. If you are playing “Rosanna” by Toto in a live set at a bar, you don’t need anyone’s permission. If you want to record a Peter, Paul, and Mary tribute album and send it to every member of your extended family, you don’t need to clear it.

    Some of the comments are overblowing the danger of using music that’s not yours… “thousands of sharp music attorneys” trolling the internet in search of your YouTube video covering “let’s get it on In Public” by Kelis? If these lawyers are really out there, they’re looking for someone with deeper pockets than you. Even the cases that are brought for infringement lately are targeting bit torrent users, and the “severe” penalties they want you to worry about are rarely awarded.

    Don’t be afraid to play other peoples’ music… it’s how we learn the craft, and it’s how new styles are born. Oh, and crowds really like it. But the music’s not for them, is it?

    -Johnny Lick

  11. While there is much valuable information in this article, I feel it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Determining who to contact can be a laborious process–I know from experience. I usually start with the Harry Fox Agency. But if a song is not listed there, you can be relatively certain that if it has been recorded, there is someone you need to pay for licensing. In my case I was planning on covering the old Savoy Brown song from the 70’s “I’m Tired.” I could not find it at the HFC and made several online inquiries concerning it. I finally found a copy of the CD which had recently been re-released and I just made an inquiry to the record label with which it was published (Crysalis). I just went to their site and under their “contact” page just left a email listing my intentions and asked who to contact. Their response was close to immediate. I was contacted by the head of the creative department and he gave me all the pertinent information and welcomed me to cover the song and actually wished me good luck with it. Moral of the story: Follow the money! If there is a buck to be made, one can be certain that someone will find a way to facilitate the cash flow for them from you! That being said, be careful of what the actual verbiage of the license states. I’ve seen them with a number of contingency clauses, such as the original artist has to pass approval, but usually they are more than willing to exchange a little artistic freedom for the almighty dollar.

  12. another comment: a lot of people get confused about a song in “public domain” no longer has an “author” associated with it, and publishes the credits only as “public domain”, and although there’s lots of traditional songs whose author is unknown, this is the exception to the rule, for example the “Beethoven 5th Symphony” although it is in public domain already, the author is still (and will remain) Ludwig Van Beethoven, so it need to be credited, and not only “public domain”

  13. Check the copyright law in your country also. I am in Mexico, and in this country the “Federal Author rights protection law” says that a work gets into Public Domain “100 years after the death of the author”, this period varies country to country, and the average world wide is 70 years.

  14. Just a springboard on what was well-said by Stuart H. Tresser. While melodies and lyrics are under copyright, not only are song titles not copyright-able, but neither are the actual chord progression – i.e. the harmonies. The chord progression for most blues songs is the simple 12-bar-blues – so common in music (from “Hound Dog” to “The Thrill is Gone” to “Tutti Fruitti” and hundreds more) and yet not under copyright. This means that while the melody, lyrics and some specific indentifiable instrumental licks of “Stairway to Heaven” are protected by copyright, the actual chord progression cannot be protected. This is one of the reasons that so many doo-wop songs of the ’50s are built on the same, simple chords. Just wanted to throw some additional information on the woodpile.

  15. I always check with the publisher of the octavo for copyright requirements. Often, for small releases, less than 100 copies, if you own the octavo (even if you made a photocopy for one-time performance conveniance) for each musician all that is required is to ask. On a few occasions, the composer actually granted a special license and even provided a special arrangement for our group.

  16. This Info is pretty good ,it is concise and straight forward…i don’t do much writing so knowing about public domain songs or the clearing of a song is important to me.

  17. >>Also numerous classical works, including: “Gymnopedie” (Erik Satie) and “Clair de Lune” (Claude Debussy) are in the public domain.<<

    Actually, http://loc.gov – Library of Congress' website – is probably the most authoritative source in the US, since they're the Registrar of Copyrights. They have a public searchable database, which lists 3 pages of various versions of Gymnopedie, including some presumable originals that are licensed to Satie's heirs.

    And of course, http://www.harryfox.com is the official agency for most mechanical licenses of copyright pop songs, and has an online licensing system at statutory rates.

  18. Research must be done carefully to determine if a song is in the “public domain”. Generally, if you see the words “Traditional” it often indicates public domain. The Copyright office has a wonderful website where you can find out when the song or work was copyrighted. They also mention how to do the research. Certain copyrights have been reinstated! It is important to make sure this is not the case with the song, work or tune you are trying to use has not been reinstated. There are thousands of sharp music attorneys just looking for infringement cases out there. They search, monitor the internet, television, anyplace where song is performed. The penalties are very severe for infringement and lawyers see this as gold! If you plan to use a cover song, pay he royalties as it is much less than a hugh fine,lawsuit, action. I always like writing my own material. If you own the song, nobody can collect money from you or royalties. It makes no difference weather the song is a love song or a death march! Music, notes,melody, are copyrightable. Titles are not copyrightable! I suggest you do some reading and prepare yourself by knowing the laws. You should be familiar with the Sony Bono Term Copyright Extension Act. This act has had a major impact on works–and allows publishers to extend the life of the original copyright term. This is very important because something you thought was in public domain is not and controlled by a publisher who was assigned the rights! Be very careful and do your homework.

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