Public domain

If a song is in the public domain, people often believe that they can freely copy any version of the song that they have. However, this is not the case.

Once a song is in public domain, anyone may create a new work based on that original song, such as a barbershop arrangement. However, the creator of that new work then owns the new creation, and can charge for or limit the use of the new work in any way they please, just like a songwriter.

If you would like to sing an arrangement I have done of a public domain song, you still need to get permission from me and pay the prescribed fee for each copy that you hold.

Public domain rules apply based on the laws of the country where your ensemble is based. Where songs are public domain in one country but not in another, I will endeavour to indicate that in my arranger’s list. If the song is not in public domain in your country of residence, then copyright clearance must be obtained as for any song under copyright.

Public domain rules by country

Each country has its own public domain rules. A song may be public domain in one country, but still be under copyright in another.

In all of the main countries where barbershop is prolific, EXCEPT the USA, public domain is determined by the date of the death of the author of the song (composer/lyricist). If there is more than one composer/lyricist, it’s the date of the last one to die.

The general rules for the main countries where barbershop is sung are as follows:

New Zealand

50 years after the death of the composer or other author. Learn more

Canada

50 years after the death of the composer or other author. However, this may change or have changed as Canada signs the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement. Learn more

Australia

Since 2005, public domain commences 70 years after death of author. However, before 2005, public domain commenced at the death of author plus 50 years. At the time when it was extended to 70 years, it was decided to keep the status of all music already in public domain.

This means that all music written by composers who died before 1 January 1955 are in public domain in Australia. No new music will enter the public domain until 1 January 2026. Learn more

The United Kingdom

70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. Learn more

European Union (includes Sweden, Germany, Spain)

70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. Learn more

USA

The USA has very different laws about public domain. Many songs remain under copyright in the USA that are public domain in all the other countries listed above.

Until 1 January 2019:

Any *published* works that were published with the author’s permission on or before 1 January 1923 are in the public domain.

So, if you have a piece of published music produced by a reputable publisher dated prior to 1923, it is in all likelihood in public domain.

Anything published after 1 January 1923 is almost certainly not in public domain in the USA.

From 1 January 2019:

The same applies, but works published in 1923 calendar year will enter the public domain also.

Learn more