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The History of Public Domain Sheet Music


In order to protect the rights of musicians and composers, as well as other artists, the United States has had several copyright laws in effect throughout the last century.  These laws were intended to prevent people from copying or abusing the music of someone else.  When considering the history of both copyrighted sheet music and free sheet music (also known as public domain sheet music), there are two key laws to consider.


The 1909 Act protected published works by allowing them to be copyrighted (including sheet music).  Under this act, all material was copyrighted for ninety-five years if published after 1924.  However, many of the pieces created under this act eventually became free sheet music, since a renewal process was required to maintain the copyright.


Then, in 1976, the US government created a new law that eliminated the need to renew your copyright on artistic material.  Starting in 1978, material published would automatically be copyrighted for the life of the author plus seventy years (with no renewal process required).  This Act made it easier for artists and composers to maintain their copyright, but reduced the amount of free sheet music available from this time period.


Under either law, composers who wished to donate their music into the public domain (to make it free sheet music) were able to do so simply by stating their wishes in writing.   Once donated into the public domain, the free sheet music cannot be reclaimed by the original composer (or their heirs) at a later date.