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Find resources and recommendations on making legal and ethical use of copyrighted scholarly work.

Copyright and music

Music is one of the most complex areas covered under copyright law. There are many factors to be aware of when it comes to copyrighted music: not only is a musical work (i.e. a composition) potentially protected by copyright, but an edition of that music can separately be under copyright, and a recorded performance of that musical work is also covered by copyright!  In addition, copyright laws in the United States have been applied differently (historically) to printed scores than they were to recorded sounds. 

A fundamental concept in understanding music copyright law is the difference between the musical work and the many ways in which it might be performed, published, edited, etc.

  • For example, Mozart's opera Don Giovanni was written and first performed in 1787. The work itself is not in copyright.
  • A newly edited score of Don Giovanni was published in 2005. This score is in copyright.
  • There are many recorded performances of Don Giovanni available to listen to.  It is very likely that most of them are in copyright, regardless of the date they were recorded or published.

Public domain for pre-1923 works does not currently apply to sound recordings (see the box below on the Music Modernization Act). Instead, sound recordings are covered by the laws of the state in which the recording was made, and by default one should assume that any given sound recording is still covered by copyright.

The resources linked below have additional information to help you navigate music copyright:

Music Copyright Resources

The Music Modernization Act (2018)

The Music Modernization Act is one of the most significant changes to the Copyright Act in decades. Beginning in 2022, sound recordings that currently fall under a complicated system of state copyright laws will be covered under federal law instead.

There are three parts to the MMA:

Title I: Music Licensing Modernization

Title II: Classics Protection and Access Act (covers sound recordings fixed prior to February 15, 1972)

Title III: Allocation for Music Producers Act

The full act can be reviewed on the Music Modernization Act section of the U.S. Copyright website.

One important change for scholars is the rolling terms for sound recordings entering the public domain. 

 Publication Date


 Enters Public Domain

 Before 1923

 95 years

 January 1, 2022


 95 + 5 years



 95 + 15 years


 1957-Feb. 15, 1972


 Feb. 15, 2067