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What is Non-Copyright Music?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Non-copyright music is music for which the legal copyright has expired or has been allowed to lapse intentionally by the musician or rights owner. In ordinary circumstances, any other artist wishing to use music, such as for a video production, must first secure permission from the party who holds the music’s copyright. This often involves paying for the usage, which can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Non-copyright music is available without usage fees, making such secondary uses more convenient.

According to the 1976 Copyright Act of the United States and international agreements such as the Berne Convention, all music is protected by copyright from the moment it is created. Due to the economics of the music industry, the copyrights to most popular songs are owned by recording companies, not musicians. In either case, anyone wishing to use a song must acquire permission from the rights holder, which often involves a usage fee. For very popular songs, these fees can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars or the foreign equivalent. For struggling artists such as aspiring filmmakers, even relatively obscure music can be prohibitively expensive.

For some artists, the solution is to use music for which the copyright has expired. Most copyright laws allow the copyright to lapse 75 to 100 years after the death of the artist or musician. After this time, it is considered part of the public domain. Some music may enter the public domain sooner if the rights holder failed to register or maintain the copyright. Even this may not qualify as non-copyright music, however; a symphony performance of a Beethoven composition may be owned by the company that released the recording, even if the copyright on the music itself has long since expired.

Some companies deliberately produce non-copyright music by hiring musicians to create music for exactly that purpose. They allow the copyright to lapse intentionally so that no usage fees or royalties will apply. Schools, aspiring artists, or others without adequate funding for copyrighted music can use this non-copyright music in exchange for a one-time fee, which is sometimes just the price of a CD or download. While this music can be generic or otherwise less than spectacular, it is perfectly suitable for background music or the like and frees the user from potential copyright hassles. Such non-copyright music is sometimes called royalty-free, or stock, music, after the stock images that provide a similar function in the printing and publishing fields.

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Discussion Comments
By gravois — On Jan 06, 2012

I like to make short films but I don't have the budget to pay for copyrighted music. In one of my first films I used some copyrighted songs and I ended up getting in a lot of trouble.

Unfortunately, non copyrighted music is often pretty anonymous and people don't recognize it when it comes up. It would be great to be able to use a Rolling Stones song but there is just no way.

It takes a conscientious filmmaker to be to use the music they find randomly, effectively in their film. I can be done, but you have to know what you're working with.

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