How can I tell if something is in the Public Domain?

June 29, 2018, 2:12 PM · IMSLP says that both the Strauss Horn concerto #1 and the Mozart horn concerto #2 (K. 417) are NOT in the public domain. What? Isn't it life + 50? They are both, of course, long dead.

This is a question in my new job as orchestra librarian, BTW. Hope it's OK.

Replies (14)

June 29, 2018, 2:20 PM · There are lots of editions of public domain works that have been edited to include fingerings, bowings, dynamic marks, etc. These editions are often not public domain because they are published under the editor's name. Anything by Mozart is public domain. If not, then it's the particular edition that's copyrighted.
June 29, 2018, 2:31 PM · Did finally find the Mozart in PD, but not all the parts. This is hard LOL.
June 30, 2018, 3:35 PM · In the U.S. the Copyright has been extended another generation to about 80 (?) years. Some call it the Disney/Mickey Mouse rule.
June 30, 2018, 4:17 PM · US copyright law is more complicated than that, and depends on the year of creation. It's easy to look up if you're interested. It keeps getting extended, and my understanding is that one of the most important forces prompting lawmakers to extend it is lobbying by the corporation that owns copyrights on George Gershwin's legacy. Whenever those copyrights are about to expire they push hard for another extension, and always seem to get it.
Edited: June 30, 2018, 5:06 PM · The quick answer to the OP's query is if it's in the IMSLP catalog then the chances are that that version (which may well be an original edition) is not in copyright. But always read through the headings carefully because sometimes there are exceptions such as, not in copyright in Canada but is in copyright in the US. Some modern composers may waive copyright in selected instances, so look out for those.

If a piece of music is only known when it is performed and the sheet music is unavailable to the public that could be because the descendants of the (dead) composer are sitting on it. The Doyley Carte operas (Mikado, Gondoliers etc) is a case in point. For many years the original scores were kept under wraps and used only for performances by the Doyley Carte Company. Everyone else who wanted to put on performances had to make do with modified editions (which of course attract their own copyright).

It happens also with books: a hitherto unknown book is released for publication by the family some years after the author's death, and that date of publication marks the start of copyright, and associated income for the descendants.

June 30, 2018, 5:13 PM · The parts for both of those horn concertos are available to my computer on IMSLP. Try ignoring what they say and dig down to the next level.
Edited: June 30, 2018, 8:56 PM · Andrew--I found them finally, as you say, but they do not have ALL the parts. Just SOME of the parts. At least I got the second violin parts LOL. Anyway, we ended up just renting the Strauss and will figure out the Mozart when the conductor gets back from a trip. :-)
June 30, 2018, 10:08 PM · Make sure the editions match. Articulations could be different, rehearsal numbers different at a minimum. There could even be pitch differences/rhymic differences between the 2nd vln and everything else. Mixing editions is always problematic.
Edited: July 19, 2018, 11:50 PM · I am NOT a lawyer, but here is my take on copyright. The Bern International Copyright Convention has copyright protection INTERNATIONALLY (for countries who have signed the Bern Convention) for the composer's life PLUS 70 years (it used to be 50, but was extended). That means copyright expires on January 1st of the 71st year AFTER the composer's death. It is STILL life plus 50 years in Canada, Australia, (I think Japan), and a few other places. U.S copyright was 28 years from publication, renewable for 28 more. It changed to the Bern lifetime+50 (and then +70), but then the Disney Company in order to protect the copyright of Mickey Mouse (which was about to expire) brought suit to extended it to composer's lifetime+95 years, or in the case of a work written as "work for hire" for a corporate entity to 120 years from publication. This extension is in effect until Mickey Mouse comes into pubic domain under the new rules. After that time it will revert in the US to lifetime plus 75 years. ANYTHING published before 1916 is in the public domain in the US. Strauss is still protected by copyright since he didn't die until 1949. (His music will enter public domain INTERNATIONALLY on January 1, 2020; and in the U.S. on January 1, 2045.) Mozart is in the public domain. PERIOD. (HOWEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, any EDITOR'S comments, corrections, fingerings, bowing, etc., ARE protected by copyright if the editor died less than 70 years ago INTERNATIONALLY or 95 years ago in the US. Mozart's notes, bowings, and fingerings are fair game. Anything added by an editor (after 1916 in the US) are NOT. Again, I am NOT a lawyer, but this is my understanding. There may be exemptions or exceptions to this.
July 20, 2018, 11:18 AM · As mentioned above copyright in the US can be very complicated depending on where and when something was published and in certain circumstances if it was registered. Cornell University has a good chart to help determine such cases:

If you are in a situation that might open your organization up to risk of copyright infringement, it is always advisable to consult an attorney familiar with copyright law and prior copyright cases.

July 20, 2018, 1:25 PM · Probably better to be safe than sorry and look at contacting the publisher if there could be a copyright. These kinds of issues scare some would be users when it really is a fairly painless process here in the US.Not sure about elsewhere.

A person simply contacts the publisher/owner and signs to a deal that gives them a small percentage of the sale. This won't take you to the cleaners. The amounts are small unless you plan to distribute and sell a million copies of it.You only pay if an actual sale is made. All fair and square.

Much of the piracy that happens isn't pursued because it isn't worth the legal fees( and trouble) to sue. The radar doesn't go up unless you are caught making out like a bandit on someone else's material. A few issues here and there are commonly not flagged. Is that a reason to do it?
A big NO.

July 20, 2018, 1:35 PM · Maybe this isn’t worth nothing but until I bought the books with the complete Mozart piano sonatas I used to search for them in this webpage, which I believe is public domain (note that I’m not American and have an almost absolute ignorance of US copyright laws):

I hope it helps, but take it with caution.

Edited: July 28, 2018, 12:20 AM · It used to be 50 years after death, but now most countries go with 70 years. Can't let those people starve whose great grandfather was a genius can you?

It is insane. In the US it is even more insane.

IMSLP has fairly good explanations of all this.

July 28, 2018, 3:54 PM · Elizabeth,

My wife and I assumed the position of Music Librarians for a local youth orchestra so we have similar issues. Copyright is all about using the product for profit or without proper attribution. If you're going to play the Mozart piece in your private studio you have nothing to worry about, likewise if you use it to teach a student something, even a non-profit performance usually slides by (there are just too many of them to pursue).

However, if you are librarian for an orchestra that sells tickets for profit and takes out all kinds of advertisements be careful.

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