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A work that is in the public domain is not protected by copyright and can be freely used for any purpose. Which works are in the public domain varies from country to country.
This page explains (in general terms) which items are in the public domain in certain countries. Please note that this informational guide does not cover the full complexities of copyright law and is not guaranteed to be accurate or up to date.
This guide deals mostly with copyright in Canada, the United States and European Union countries, which are the laws relevant for most uploads made to IMSLP, both due to the presence of servers and mirrors in Canada, the US and EU countries, as well as the fact that many items uploaded to IMSLP were first published in these countries. This page may not contain information specific to your country.
Special rules usually apply to sound recordings. Please consult the section on sound recordings for further information.
Please note that while the use of copyrighted works may sometimes be allowed under fair use or fair dealing provisions, this guide does not cover that topic.
IMSLP's main servers are located in Canada. An item may be uploaded to the main IMSLP servers if it is in the public domain in Canada — or if appropriate permission is given by the copyright holder(s), a topic which is not addressed on this page (see the licensing policy and guidelines).
Items which are in the public domain in the United States but not Canada may be uploaded to Petrucci Music Library US (PML-US). For information on how to make an upload to PML-US, please see PML-US upload instructions.
IMSLP voluntarily applies a rule that critical, scientific or urtext editions of public domain works may be uploaded to IMSLP only if 25 years have passed since their publication or if they are in the public domain in Germany. (With such editions, it is important to remove any prefaces, etc., which qualify for independent copyrights, as well as some additions — such as fingerings — which may originate with the editor — see the section on new editions of public domain works below.)
Downloading and/or using an item may not be allowed in your country if it is not in the public domain or the use is allowed according to an exception in copyright law.
IMSLP makes no guarantee that the files provided for download, viewing or streaming are in the public domain in your country and assumes no legal responsibility or liability for their status in your country. In order to verify that a particular item is in the public domain in any specific country, please consult the copyright law of that country or a qualified legal professional.
Copyright law protects original works of many kinds, including musical works. Any original work has an author or authors (who may be named or anonymous).
An original work may also incorporate elements from an existing (underlying) work, making it a derivative work. In this case, only the original elements are protected by the new work's copyright, while the elements from the underlying work remain separate, and may be copyrighted or in the public domain (as the case may be).
Copyright is not "infectious"; a public domain work remains in the public domain and freely copiable even if it is included in a volume with copyrighted works, if it is later reprinted or if a new derivative work is made based on that public domain work. The relevant factor in determining whether or not content is in the public domain is what the content is, not how it was accessed. Public domain content that is copied from a source where it is included with copyrighted content remains public domain content — though care must be taken in such cases to avoid copying copyrighted content along with public domain content.
The following are all examples of types of copyrightable work:
The following, however, are not generally considered copyrightable:
Since facts are not copyrightable, it is always permissible (and encouraged) to add factual information about a work, even if that information was discovered recently and published in a copyrighted paper. (Citations to the paper may help back up the validity of the statement, but this is not required by law.)
The threshold of originality is the standard that determines what is required for there to be a new original work. New compositions are clearly original works, but new editions and engravings may or may not be protected, and special provisions (including related rights provisions) may apply to some publications, even when there is no original work. Please see the sections on copyright in new editions and related rights provisions for further details.
Whoever is responsible for the original creative content of the work is one of its authors. A work may have multiple authors, e.g., both a composer and librettist. The entire work only enters the public domain once all its authors' contributions have entered the public domain. This may vary from country to country.
In Canada, the contributions of separate authors (e.g., composers and librettists) are calculated separately according to the rules for determining the proper copyright term (see the section on this subject).
When the authorship is separable, then the works may be separated from one another. For instance, it is OK in Canada to post an instrumental version of a piece if the composer's copyright has expired, but the librettist's copyright has not expired, since the lyrics are separable from the music.
In the United States, the copyright term of works published or registered before 1978 (which includes most public domain works) is determined by publication details, and so it is unusual for the work by a composer to be in the public domain while the lyrics are still protected.
However, in cases where this may be relevant, the music and lyrics are considered separable in the United States, just as they are in Canada.
The European Union copyright directive provides that the copyright in the words and music to a piece expire at the same time (according to the longest copyright term between the authors) if the words and music were created together to be a single work.
For example, if a composer and librettist collaborated to write a song or opera, and the composer's work in general is in the public domain in EU countries, but the librettist's is not, then both the music and the lyrics remain copyrighted in EU countries.
However, for example, if a composer wrote a song to lyrics which were originally created for a book of poetry or some other distinct work, then the music and lyrics are separable from one another.
Most works will be printed with a copyright notice, which generally specifies the year of publication and the claimant (generally a publisher or author). A copyright notice may provide useful information for determining the copyright status of a work. However, the lack of a copyright notice does not necessarily mean that a work is in the public domain (although it may result in a work being in the public domain in some cases, especially due to US-specific provisions; for details, see the section on United States copyright below).
In some instances, publishers will attach a new copyright notice to a reprint of an existing work. This practice is known as copyfraud. The addition of a new copyright notice to a work that has already been published cannot extend the original copyright in any way, and copying a reprint of a public domain work is allowed under copyright law. If a new copyrighted preface has been added to an existing public domain work, then the preface must not be included, but the existing public domain work remains in the public domain.
In some cases, libraries claim copyrights on items in their collection (or scans or photographs of items in their collections). In some cases, libraries will claim to offer these items under a certain license (free or restrictive). If the original item is not protected by copyright, however, then a reproduction of that two-dimensional item will not qualify for a new copyright, and the item should be listed as being in the public domain. (Note, however, that especially as relates to certain unpublished works, items in libraries may be subject to copyright or related rights. Not all original items in library collections are in the public domain.)
Note that for all the rules specified in this section, the term of copyright lasts until the end of the calendar year of expiration.
For example, if a copyright lasts for 70 years after an author's death, and the author who died on March 14, 1955, then the term lasts until December 31, 2025 and the work is in the public domain from 2026 onwards.
In Canada, copyright generally lasted for 50 years after the author's death for authors who died in 1971 or earlier, and now generally lasts for 70 years after the author's death for authors who died in 1972 or later.
In Canada, the works of authors who died in 1971 or earlier are generally in the public domain, while the works of authors who died in 1972 or later are generally still copyrighted. However, see the rules which apply in special cases, as listed below.
If a work was not published, publicly performed or communicated via telecommunication (for short, we will say made public to refer to any of these activities) during an author's lifetime, then the work is a posthumous work.
Different provisions apply depending on when the posthumous work was first made public.
Copyright in these works lasted for 50 years from the year they were first made public. Posthumous works published in 1971 or earlier are in the public domain in Canada.
The copyright for these posthumous works lasts for the longer of the following:
If the work was first made public in 1999 or later (including works that have not yet been made public), then the calculation of the copyright term is not based on the year the work was first made public, but instead on the year of the author's death.
If the author died in 1948 or earlier, then the work is in the public domain, even if first published in 1999 or later (including if it is still unpublished).
If the author died in 1949 or later, then the work's copyright lasts until whichever is longer of the following:
Rule for pre-2023 expirations Anonymous and pseudonymous works were copyrighted for either 75 years from creation or 50 years from first publication, whichever ended earlier. This rule applies for expirations in 2022 and earlier, and works that expired under this rule remain in the public domain. Accordingly, any anonymous or pseudonymous work is in the public domain if it it was either made in 1946 or earlier or published in 1971 or earlier.
Rule for expirations in 2023 and later For expirations in 2023 and later, the following rules apply:
However, if the identity of the anonymous or pseudonymous author becomes commonly known before the copyright expires, the term is calculated according to the rules for known authors. In the case of a work of joint authorship, if any of the authors are known or become known during the period of copyright, the copyright term for that work applies according to the data relating to the author(s) identified during that period.
The Canadian Copyright Act included a version of the rule of the shorter term until its amendment in 2022 (which did not remove any work already in the public domain from the public domain).
The provision for the rule of the shorter term follows the provision relating to how the term for joint works is calculated (which is to say, based on the date of death of the last surviving joint author). The ambiguity of Canada's wording of this rule was pointed out as early as the 1940s (by Samuel Rogers). The test derived from the 1928 revision of the Berne Convention, which established two tests for the rule of the shorter term: one based on country of origin (for non-joint works) and one based on nationality (for joint works).
No Canadian court has ever dealt with this issue. The absurdity of applying the principle only for joint works is perhaps best avoided by interpreting the Canadian Act as applying the nationality-based test to all authors, whether or joint works or otherwise (which is not in conflict with the literal reading of the text). However, with the passage of NAFTA, this provision was specifically made not to apply to nationals of the United States or Mexico; it also cannot apply to Canadians.
Assuming the applicability of the pre-2023 rule, then, notwithstanding the term calculations listed above, a work is in the public domain in Canada if both the following conditions apply:
In the United States, copyright terms vary according to when the work was first published and other factors.
In the United States, any work first published in 1928 or earlier is in the public domain. Any work first published in 1929 or later may still be copyrighted, depending on the details of its first publication.
It can be assumed that most notable works first published in 1929 or later are still copyrighted, but exceptions may apply.
Note that publication for the purposes of US copyright law does not include performance. A work could be publicly performed without being published. The section on publication details what would constitute publication.
The details relevant for determining the copyright status of a work published in 1929 or later may include:
US copyright for most of the twentieth century depended on compliance with certain formalities (notice and renewal) in order to be kept. Current US copyright in US works is dependent on those formalities. Current US copyright in foreign works is in many cases not dependent on compliance with US copyright formalities, due to the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA). Please see the section on foreign works for details.
If the author of the work died in 1972 or later, the work will generally not be in the public domain in Canada. However, an item can be uploaded to PML-US if it is in the public domain in the United States.
These works are in the public domain in the United States.
These works are protected for 95 years from publication, if they meet all the following requirements:
If a work did not meet both the notice and renewal requirements, then it is the public domain, unless it is URAA-eligible (see section below on foreign works).
These works are protected for 95 years from publication, if they meet the following requirement:
If a work did not meet the notice requirement, then it is the public domain, unless it is URAA-eligible (see section below on foreign works).
These works have a copyright if they meet either of the following requirements:
If a work did not meet either requirement, then it is the public domain, unless the work is URAA-eligible (see section below on foreign works).
For the term of copyright for these works, see the section below on the term of copyright for works published from 1978 to 2002.
The copyright status of all works first published March 1, 1989 or later is not dependent on any copyright notice or renewal requirements.
For the term of copyright for these works, see the section below on the term of copyright for works published from 1978 to 2002.
Additionally, the copyright for works first published or registered between March 1, 1989 and December 31, 2002 cannot have expired as of 2024. The copyright of certain works published after this time (including unpublished works) may have expired; see the section for works published or registered in 2003 or later.
The term of a work published or registered between 1978 and 2002 is calculated as follows.
If the work was created (meaning completed) in 1978 or later, then the copyright lasts for the following term:
If a work was created (meaning completed) in 1977 or earlier, then the copyright lasts for the longer of the following:
As a result, a work by anyone who died in 1977 or earlier and which was first published between 1978 and 2002 will enter the public domain in 2048.
Irrespective of when a work was created, its term if first published or registered in 2003 or later (including if it is still unpublished) is as follows:
Because of these rules, the copyright to a posthumously published work can expire before it is ever published or shortly after the first publication.
For some publications (see section above based on year of first publication or registration), a copyright notice must have been included on all published copies. Failure to include a valid notice would lead to the work entering the public domain. The following were requirements for a valid notice:
The following rules relate to the year given in the copyright notice:
The Copyright Act of 1976 defines "publication" as "the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. [...] offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, [also] constitutes publication."
Under the Copyright Act of 1909, which applies to works published before 1978, "publication" was not explicitly defined. However, the definition codified by Congress in the 1976 Act was generally in line with the definitions used by courts with relation to the act of publication under the 1909 Act.
The following would all normally qualify as (general) publication:
However, performance is not considered publication in the US, and a work can be performed and remain unpublished.
It is also important to note that not all forms of distribution constitute general publication. A work which had only a limited publication would be considered unpublished for the purposes of federal copyright. In order to be a limited publication, the distribution would have to be restricted in terms of both audience and purpose: the recipients could only be from within a definitely selected group and for a speicifically limited purpose (without the right of diffusion, reproduction, distribution or sale).
Sending copies of a manuscript to prospective publishers (whether or not the copies were returned), for instance, would not publish the work; distributing the work to members of one's own ensemble for the limited purpose of performance also would not publish the work. However, in order to avoid general publication, the distribution had to meet both criteria for limited publication. Sending a person a copy as a gift, even only one copy, would constitute general publication, so long as the person owned the copy in the ordinary sense (e.g., could use it as someone who normally owns a copy would). Similarly, distributing a work through a rental library to various performers and groups would constitute general publication, even if the items had to be returned.
Only the content actually present in a publication is published. Publication of excerpts from a larger work would not publish the larger work. Additionally, publishing an arrangement without any offer indicating the availability of the work in its original instrumentation only would not result in the simultaneous publication of the original instrumentation.
The US Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCE) has been digitized (both for original and renewal registrations).
For works for which a renewal was required, look for a renewal notice registered during the 27th and 28th years of copyright (for a work published in 1940, this would mean checking the 1967 and 1968 entries). You may need to check the 29th year, too (1969) — it was uncommon, but sometimes a backlog resulted in publication in the CCE being delayed to that year.
Due to the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), many non-US works first published in 1929 or later (though not all) are copyrighted in the US, despite lacking a valid copyright notice and/or renewal filing.
Contrary to incorrect information that has been spread online, including on this site, the URAA restored or retroactively granted copyright to any eligible work automatically. Whether or not a Notice of Intent to Enforce (NIE) was filed with the US Copyright Office does NOT affect whether or not the copyright is valid and enforceable (except against reliance parties). This page is a guide to determining whether or not a work is copyright-protected in the US due to the URAA.
If a work is in fact URAA-eligible, then its term of copyright in the US is the same as that of a work that had been published at the same time with a proper copyright notice and a timely renewal. Any work published in 1928 or earlier is now in the public domain in the US, even if copyright was restored by the URAA.
A work is URAA-eligible if it meets all of the following requirements:
Some clarifications and definitions relevant to the prior requirements:
In order to determine that a work is likely or definitely not URAA-eligible, evidence must be presented that one of the requirements listed above was not met, such as:
You will need to determine the work's source country (generally the country of first publication). If the country of publication no longer existed at the time of restoration, then you may need to check the copyright law in a successor state of that country (e.g., for a work first published in Prague when Czechoslovakia existed, you may need to check the copyright law of the Czech Republic).
English Wikipedia has a list of countries, URAA restoration dates and copyright terms as of that date. For most countries, the URAA restoration date is January 1, 1996. Any item which was in the public domain as of 1996 in those countries was ineligible for URAA restoration.
Note that only the copyright status on the URAA restoration date is relevant. Some countries (including the Czech Republic and Hungary) passed laws after January 1, 1996 which retroactively re-copyrighted various works which had fallen into the public domain, but these are not relevant (as the URAA restoration date had already passed).
The copyright term in European Union countries is a matter of national legislation. This legiation, however, must be written in line with the European Union directives on copyright. Unlike Canada and the United States, European Union countries also grant rights in some cases to the publishers for certain works whose authors' rights have expired.
The author's copyright lasts for 70 years from the author's death. All the works of any person who died in 1953 or earlier are generally in the public domain.
In certain cases, some European Union countries give a longer copyright term than required by the European Union copyright directives. These terms only apply in those countries and do not apply to other countries in the European Union.
If a work which has never before been lawfully published or communicated to the public (which would include public performance), and the author's copyright has expired (i.e., the author was dead for over 70 years before the first publication or performance), then the person or organization who first publishes or communicates the work receives an exclusive protection (equivalent to copyright) for 25 years from publication or performance.
Note that this term applies only if the author's copyrights expired before the first publication or performance. A work that is published or performed 69 years after the death of its author does not receive any additional protection beyond that of the author's general copyright term (meaning it is only protected for one year after its first publication or performance).
The first-publication right belongs to the first publisher and not to the author's heirs, unless those happen to be the same person or the right is otherwise assigned.
The first-publication right, since it is equivalent to copyright, applies to the work itself (and so another edition of the work would not be allowed in EU countries without authorization from the rightsholder).
European Union countries may protect critical and scientific editions of works that are already in the public domain at the time of the edition's publication; this right can last for a maximum of 30 years. Only the following countries grant such a protection:
[The United Kingdom, while no longer an EU country, similarly protects "typographical arrangements" for 25 years from publication.]
The exclusive rights to a new edition, where they exist, do not change the fact that the underlying work is in the public domain and do not imply any exclusive right to the original work itself.
The EU copyright directives implement a rule of the shorter term, which is the following: "Where the country of origin of a work, within the meaning of the Berne Convention, is a third country, and the author of the work is not a Community [EU] national, the term of protection granted by the Member States shall expire on the date of expiry of the protection granted in the country of origin of the work, but may not exceed the [general term of life plus 70 years]."
Additionally, however, "Member States which, on 29 October 1993, in particular pursuant to their international obligations, granted a longer term of protection than that which would result from the provisions of paragraphs 1 and 2 may maintain this protection until the conclusion of international agreements on the term of protection of copyright or related rights."
So, the rule of the shorter term applies in the EU when all of the following conditions apply:
There are a number of issues related to the application of the rule of the shorter term to works first published in the United States, in addition to the fact that an author whose work was first published in the US may be a national of an EU country.
In order to be protectable as an original work, an item must pass the threshold of originality. This will differ between countries. Since IMSLP's main servers are based in Canada, Canadian standards are relevant.
It is likely that most editions which are marketed as "urtext," "critical" or "scientific" editions do not qualify for copyright in Canada — just as they do not qualify as "works" in the Berne Convention sense (as applied in European Union countries). The reason for this is that, in maintaining authenticity to the existing source, these editions do not contain material which originates with their editors or compilers.
Additionally, however, IMSLP voluntarily applies a rule that critical, scientific or urtext editions of public domain works may be uploaded to IMSLP only if 25 years have passed since their publication or if they are in the public domain in Germany.
However, some editions (even if marketed as "urtext") include new material which has been added by editors; it is generally indicated that this new material is separate from the original work, and the boundary between the two is usually fairly clearly demarcated. Material covered by copyright (if present in any non-de minimis amount) must be removed in order for any item to be accepted. Material which is most likely copyrightable in Canada and should generally be removed if credited to and apparently originating from an editor includes:
Of course, all material that is in the public domain in Canada (generally because the author of that material died in 1971 or earlier) can be included.
Additionally, if a work has a lyric translation which is not in the public domain for a work which has lyrics in the public domain, then this translation must be redacted (leaving only public domain lyrics). Note that a translation cannot be in the public domain if the lyrics from which it is derived remain copyrighted, due to being derivative of the original lyrics.
There is very little Canadian case law which deals with the threshold of originality as applies to musical editions. In his article "," Guillaume Laroche gives an analysis of how Canadian law might apply specifically to this issue.
Canadian law's standard for originality is given in CCH Canadian Ltd. v. Law Society of Upper Canada.
By contrast, the US applies a "modicum of creativity" standard (given in Feist v. Rural). The Canadian CCH standard rejects "creativity" as a criterion for originality. It has been argued (for instance, by Abraham Drassinower) that the Canadian threshold is similar to the US threshold in most ways, and that the Canadian rejection of "creativity," which refers to novelty, is based on the use of a different definition of "creativity" than the one used in Feist, which rejects novelty as a requirement for creativity.
There is a long history of jurisprudence in the US — some of the most extensive in any country. The current standards for originality in general are given in Feist v. Rural. There is not much post-Feist precedent relating specifically to music, but gives us a recent description of the standard relevant to musical editions (citations omitted):
This is somewhat similar to the "any competent musician" standard, which is found found in earlier US case law. The difference elucidated here is that the implication that the skill required must be commonplace ("any competent musician") is erroneous — the uniqueness or specialness of the training necessary in order to produce the un-original result is not relevant; the only thing that matters is whether or not that person is indeed creating something which is substantially creative such that it would result in a new copyright.
The European Court of Justice in Infopaq International A/S v Danske Dagblades Forening concluded that a single threshold of originality applies as part of the European copyright acquis, overriding higher or lower standards that may have formerly applied in various EU countries. The general requirements are that a work must be the author's own intellectual creation, which requires that it reflect the author's personality in a way that reflects freedom to make creative choices. This work also must be identifiable with sufficient precision and objectivity.
Generally speaking, while the exact standards are difficult to pin down due to a lack of recent European-level jurisprudence, it is likely that most new editions do not qualify for a new copyright in European Union countries per se — that is, that the editors do not benefit from the term of copyright afforded to original works (life plus 70 years). However, certain states provide the optional protection which is given to new editions of public domain works (see the section above on the term of copyright in the European Union).
Sound recordings have multiple layers of copyright. It is important to account for:
In order for IMSLP to accept a sound recording as a public domain file, both copyrights must have expired in Canada.
In order to determine the copyright status for the underlying work, please see the previous sections. In order to determine the copyright status for the recording itself, see below.
The current term (non-retroactively extended 20 years, preventing expirations of works from after 1964) is:
Therefore, all recordings published in 1964 or earlier are in the public domain in Canada.
The history of US protection for sound recordings is complex. Congress first extended federal protection to sound recordings from February 15, 1972, but this was non-retroactive. It was only in 2018 that the Music Modernization Act established a scheme of federal protection for recordings from before that date. (The history of these provisions is complex and will not be addressed here in detail.)
The US copyright terms for sound recordings are as follows:
Currently, all recordings published in 1923 or earlier are in the public domain in the United States.
The current term (non-retroactively extended 20 years, preventing expirations of works from after 1962) is:
Therefore, all recordings published in 1962 or earlier are in the public domain in European Union countries.
(Note that while the extension came into effect on November 1, 2013, all copyright terms under European Union copyright directives relate to expirations on January 1, and so materials from January–October 1963 never fell into the public domain.)