FAQs

1. What is copyright?

In the United States, copyright is the right of an author of a creative work to prevent others from doing certain things with that work, including copying it and performing it.  See 17 U.S.C. § 101, et sec.  Copyright can cover almost any original creative work expressed in a tangible form. In other countries, the scope of a copyright or related rights may be different.

The copyrights that apply to music are complicated.  Put simply, there are at least two copyrights to any sound recording of a musical work – the copyright on the underlying composition and the copyright on the particular performance.  So, for example, if you perform the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, John Lennon’s estate holds a copyright in the sheet music, and you hold a copyright in your performance, but you are limited in doing certain things with the recording of your performance without John Lennon’s estate’s permission or a statutory license.

We offer the following links to copyright law resources for informational purposes:

U.S. Copyright Office – Copyright FAQ
Chilling Effects Clearinghouse – Copyright FAQ


2. What is the public domain?

In United States, the “public domain” refers to works that are not protected by federal copyright law and are free to be used, copied and distributed by anyone without attribution, permission, license or royalty payment.  A work may become part of the public domain for a variety of reasons, including expiration of the term of copyright protection, failure of the work to qualify for copyright protection, or dedication of the work to the public domain by the work’s author.  The concept of the public domain differs from country to country.

For more information about the public domain, please see the following:

Cornell University’s “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States”
Stanford University Libraries – Copyright & Fair Use


3. What are some common misunderstandings regarding the public domain?

There is no “official” list of what music or other material is in the public domain.  Determining whether a particular work is in the public domain may require the aid of an attorney.  
Some examples of common misunderstandings about the public domain include:

  • The lack of a copyright notice (“©”) on a musical composition or sound recording (or on the medium in which it is stored) does not necessarily mean it is in the public domain. Nor does the musical composition’s or sound recording’s availability “for free” on the Internet, the radio, or otherwise mean that it is in the public domain.  
  • Simply because a musical composition or sound recording is old does not necessarily mean the work is in the public domain.  
  • Simply because a musical composition or sound recording is well-known or famous does not mean that it is in the public domain. 
  • Although certain musical compositions may be in the public domain, a particular recording of the musical composition may remain under copyright protection and may not be in the public domain.  The inverse is also true: just because a sound recording is in the public domain does not mean that the underlying musical composition is in the public domain.  There may also be many different sound recordings of the same musical composition that may be protected by different copyrights (i.e., owned by different people). 
  • Foreign musical compositions or sound recordings may not be in the public domain, as copyright laws outside of the United States are often different from ours.

For further information, the link below will take you to a tool developed by the American Library Association that may help you determine whether a particular work is in the public domain:

ALA Digital Slider


4. Can I add content to Musopen that I got elsewhere?

Yes! Musopen’s goal is to be the largest online repository of music in the public domain. However, because of the complexities discussed above, Musopen strongly encourages Musopen users to familiarize themselves with copyright law and assess the public domain status of any specific musical composition or sound recording before uploading it to the site. Please remember that our Music Dedicator Terms and Terms of Service require you to represent and warrant that content uploaded to the site is in the public domain (for more information, see our Music Dedicator Terms and Terms of Service). The following links to copyright law resources provide additional information for your reference:

U.S. Copyright Office – Copyright FAQ
Chilling Effects Clearinghouse – Copyright FAQ


5. What content on Musopen can I use and reuse elsewhere?

Musopen’s goal is to be the largest online repository of music in the public domain.  Musopen respects the rights of copyrights owners and asks that its users do the same.  Musopen requires all users who upload music to the site to represent that the uploaded musical composition and/or the sound recording is in the public domain.  However, please note that Musopen cannot guarantee that any music uploaded by its users is, in fact, in the public domain.  While Musopen seeks to prevent copyright infringement and complies as a service provider with the requirements of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), Musopen does not review music uploaded by users of the site to determine if the music is in the public domain or subject to copyright.  We strongly encourage anyone who wishes to use music found on Musopen to familiarize themselves with copyright law and the public domain and to independently assess whether any given musical work or sound recording is in the public domain and not otherwise subject to third party rights.


6. Can I use Musopen music in another work that will be sold for profit?

Public domain works are not protected by U.S. copyright law and are free to be used, copied, performed and distributed by anyone for any purpose, even if sold for profit. [However, as noted above, we strongly encourage our users to independently assess whether any given musical work or sound recording is in the public domain before using, copying, performing or distributing musical works or sound recordings found on the Musopen site.


7. What should I do if I find my copyrighted work on Musopen?

Musopen takes the rights of copyright owners very seriously, and complies as a service provider with all applicable provisions of the DMCA. If you are a copyright owner, or agent thereof, and find works on Musopen that you want us to remove, please visit our DMCA Notification Guidelines to report the instance in question.


8. If I don’t live in the United States, do these laws still apply to me?

If you live in a different country or are accessing Musopen from another country, that country’s copyright laws may be different from United States copyright law. International users must understand and comply with the laws of their own country.

For more information, visit: U.S. Copyright Office – International Copyright Relations of the United States


DISCLAIMER: NOTHING CONTAINED HERE IS LEGAL ADVICE OF ANY KIND. MUSOPEN HAS PROVIDED THIS FAQ FOR YOUR INFORMATION ONLY DOES NOT GUARANTEE THE ACCURACY OF THE INFORMATION PROVIDED HERE OR ON LINKED-TO PAGES. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, YOU SHOULD SEEK YOUR OWN LEGAL COUNSEL.