Social Question

rojo's avatar

At what point do songs fall into the public domain?

Asked by rojo (24159points) September 10th, 2015

It is not a new happenstance but there are some irritated musicians and songwriters who are extremely unhappy with certain politicians using their music on the campaign circuit without permission.

How many years must a song be around before it becomes something that anyone can use without compensating the artists?

Or, if the artist is dead, should the estate be entitled to compensation and for how long?

Finally, and just for fun, what song do you think would actually be representative of the various presidential candidates?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

7 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

The copyright laws in the US changed effective January 1978.

For songs written after January 1, 1978, the copyright is life of the author + 70 years.

For songs written before that date, it is similar, and at least 25 years if it would have otherwise expired.

Strauss's avatar

Most of the time copyrights are administered by a performing rights organization (PRO), such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. If you look at a copyright notice, it will say something like:

Copyright© 2015, Yet Another Songwriter Inc (PRO)”

where (PRO) would be replaced by BMI SESAC or ASCAP. This means performance rights are administered by the PRO, who then collects the royalties and sends a portion to the copyright holder. It is the PRO, not the copyright owner, who grants license for a work to be used. This is why many times an songwriter, for example, would not be aware that one of her/his songs is being used.

This is also the way rights are secured for cover songs. If I were to record an album of, say 15 songs, and I wrote 14, but wanted to include a song by Johnny Cash, I would go to the PRO that administers the rights to that song and negotiate for rights to record.

Darth_Algar's avatar


Those are songwriter/publish royalties, which are different from mechanical royalties. Mechanical royalties cover the actual recorded work. A person can hold the publishing rights to a song, but not the rights to the recording of that song (and vice-versa). Case-in-point: the Beatles. The members of the Beatles (and their survivors) have pretty much always held the rights to the Beatles’ recorded work (via the Beatles’ own company, Apple Corps). But the publishing rights to the songs have long been held by other people (most famously Michael Jackson).

As far as covering someone else’s songs, the artist covering the song does have to pay a royalty, but it’s pretty much a flat, standard rate. There’s not really any negotiations involved (otherwise we’d miss out on a lot of great version of songs by artists who could afford to pay inflated rates because one song was more of a hit than another).

As far as mechanical (that is to say actual recordings) it varies a bit. Generally speaking an ASCAP/BMI/etc license covers public broadcasting of that work (both in terms of recording and songwriter/publishing rights). This covers a wide range from radio broadcasts to a band performing a song in a bar. It gets a little trickier when it comes to using a particular recording in a commercial work or campaign. In those cases you are negotiating for the rights to use that particular recording. So if Mike Huckabee wants to use Survivor’s recording of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ he needs to see if the band (or label or whoever owns the master recordings) is willing to license that recording, and then to pay them whatever rate they ask. However, there’s probably nothing to stop him from hiring some other band (like, maybe, that uber-shitty, Faux Newz house band, Madison Rising) from recording a cover of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and then using that recording.

Dutchess_III's avatar

The group who performed Eye of the Tiger is acting like they’re going to get on to Kim Davis for having their song playing in the background when she was released from jail.

Darth_Algar's avatar


No, they’re acting like they’re going to get on to Mike Huckabee for using it at a campaign rally (and make no mistake – it was a Fuckabee campaign rally).

Zyx's avatar

Having copyright in a capitalistic society makes sense, having it after death sort of makes sense as a means of providing for your next of kin but “70 years after death” is a death sentence for the music itself. It’s not quite burning books, it’s just putting them behind a locked door until they turn to dust.

Darth_Algar's avatar


A good case in point about the absurdity of modern copyright law is The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. Though it was written by J.R.R, it was edited and published by his son Christopher after JRR’s death. So, Christopher is considered the legal “author” for copyright purposes. If, say, Christopher were to die today (not that I wish any harm on him), the copyright would not expire until 2086 – 112 years after the death of the man who wrote it (and it’s already been out for nearly 40 years already). That is fucked.

Answer this question




to answer.
Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther