The maze of Public Domain music

Today I did some research into public domain music and discovered something I found exciting and disappointing AND complicated, which is: there is a whole lot of great music that is in public domain…pretty much everywhere except the USA.

The USA has the most stringent laws of the barbershop countries – in general terms, only songs published before 1 January 1923 are in public domain, and the next batch (the whole year 1923) won’t come into the public domain until 2019.

In the other major barbershop singing countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, European Union), public domain commences either 50 or 70 years after the death of the author. There is heaps of music published from the 20s right up to the mid 60s that is in the public domain in many of these countries.

A good example is the works of Fred E Ahlert, who died in 1953. He wrote “I Don’t Know Why” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with Roy Turk, who died in 1934. Since both died before 1955, these songs are in public domain in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

However, Fred wrote “I Wake Up Smiling” with Edgar Leslie, who lived until 1976. This song won’t be in public domain in Canada and New Zealand until 2026 – 50 years after the death of Edgar – and in Australia and the European Union it won’t be until 2046, 70 years after Edgar’s death.

I’ve added a Public Domain information page to my website to help work out what applies to you.

So, what’s the outcome of this? Well, it means that I can start arranging a whole lot of really interesting music and I can sell it directly to the public…unless you live in the USA. My USA customers will have to get permission. Sorry guys.