Public Domain Music vs Royalty Free: How to Legally Play Music In Your Business

All creators want is some awesome music as a soundtrack for their project. But they want it without getting tangled in legalities or paying through the nose for it.

How hard can that be?

Actually, it's pretty hard because of the copyright law, which protects the rights of artists and creators, as it should. But it also makes it hard for a small business owner to pay for the rights to use music and find out if the music is available for use.

One commonly suggested solution to find music to use for motion projects like commercials and presentations is to go with "public domain" music. But what is public domain?

To understand this, let's clarify what copyright is.

What Can and Can't Be Copyrighted? 

Copyright exists to protect "unique expression." So facts cannot be copyrighted. But books, songs, and paintings about those facts, which bring them to artistic life, can be copyrighted. In one example, generic elements of a Western ballad such as cowboys, bad guys, or cheating can't be copyrighted. But the expression of those elements and the unique ways they're combined can be.

Copyright associated with music can sometimes be trickier than that with literature. This is because there are many parties involved, each of whom has rights. They include the composer, the distributor, and the performer.

So a creator or business must be aware of a lot of information to know how to legally play music.

So What Is The Public Domain?

"Public domain" refers to works of art that belong to everyone, and as per Stanford University's Copyright and Fair Use Overview, "are not protected by intellectual property laws." Such works can be used by anybody or "the public." Works of art belong to the public domain if they were never copyrighted, their copyright has lapsed, or they were deliberately created to be public domain.

Copyright to creative work lapses after 75 years, so every year new works enter the public domain. For example, novels like "The Great Gatsby" are recent additions to the public domain. Anyone who wishes can now make a "Great Gatsby" film or opera.

If music is created in the "public domain," it's usually because its creators actively dislike the copyright system and prefer that others use their music. So they make it easy by putting it in the public domain. But such music, at least of high quality, is pretty rare because most musicians want some kind of return on their artistic investment. Enforcement of copyright is the main way that artists and labels protect their ability to earn money. It is done by licensing songs for radio play, cover versions, and commercial use in film and TV.

On a side note, some music may be more easily usable than copyrighted music because it has a Creative Commons (CC) license. This is different from music in the public domain, in that there are some strings attached. Creators need to read the fine print on CC licenses as there are different kinds and each has specific restrictions on usage. Restrictions can include limiting creators' use if they want to make a profit from their film or commercial work.

What Music Is In the Public Domain?

Famous public domain music includes most classical compositions, as they are well out of the 75-year timeframe of copyright protection. However — and this is a big issue for people looking to use music in their projects — specific performances of classical music can be, and certainly are, copyrighted. So, a certain Bach concerto may be public domain. But the Yo-Yo Ma performance of it that a filmmaker has their heart set on falls under copyright, which requires licensing and permissions to use.

If creators have the skill to record a piece of classical music themselves, they could certainly do so.

It's not okay to assume that a classical piece of music is free to use. As a rule of thumb, if there's anyone who can profit from a piece of music or art, they are usually pretty attentive about renewing its copyright. Disney was a pioneer in this regard. The bulk of Disney properties started out as public domain fairytales, which Disney then transformed into blockbusters. Sherlock Holmes the character is in the public domain but Sherlock Holmes films with movie stars are protected by their studios and copyright law.

This is relevant to music as labels find ways of making their near-expiration music exploitable. This makes it harder for others to use without paying for the appropriate license or permissions.

However, there are also a lot of public domain songs from the 1920s, in historical subgenres like Dixieland and Ragtime.

The Problems With Using Public Domain Music

The main problem with using public domain music is that it may not actually be in the public domain. Sometimes, this confusion can occur if a rights-holder has taken steps to renew or refresh the copyright, but the copyright status remains unclear when a creator comes across the music piece online. There are internet sources that tell you how to find out if a song is in the public domain, but they aren't always reliable.

Stanford University's overview, authored by attorney Rich Stim, brings up several sticky situations that have befallen the use of public domain works over the years:

  • The movie It's a Wonderful Life fell into the public domain years ago because its copyright wasn't renewed. But a production company recently acquired the musical soundtrack that is used in the movie. That means, as a "multilayered work," the film is now effectively back under copyright — since copying the movie without its soundtrack, while legal, wouldn't be much fun for anyone.
  • A certain Cole Porter movie musical's copyright expired. But the copyright on its songs was renewed. So creators will need to seek permission to use those specific songs in their production.
  • Additionally, modified public domain works, e.g., if someone painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa, can be copyrighted as effectively new works. This could be problematic in music because a "public domain" composition can easily be altered by adding just a drumbeat, for example. Hip hop musicians have long had to contend with legal claims from material that was sampled but turned out to be under copyright, whose rights were enforced.

These are all just examples, but music and copyright law can be complicated and it's good to be aware of potential headaches. For instance, international copyright law can differ from U.S. copyright law, leading to potential headaches for content creators on platforms like YouTube.

A non-legal but irritating problem for creators seeking public domain music is that it's not really searchable. There are internet archives out there. But because public domain music is by nature a collection of musical artifacts, you have to prepare to listen to a lot of music before you find something that suits your project's needs.

And one final problem with public domain music is that because it involves older recordings, they can be of lesser quality. This can have its charms when making a certain kind of period piece. But corporate presentations and contemporary works (to name two obvious examples) don't require scratchy jazz or Victrola recordings of opera for their soundtracks. It's hard to imagine old recordings of medieval madrigals effectively wowing audiences of buyers looking for the next hot tech product.

In sum, many public domain recordings can be charming to listen to but are probably not right to support a corporate presentation or commercial.

What Is Royalty Free Music?

Royalty free music refers to music that can be used without paying royalties or license fees each time you use it. Instead, users pay a one-time fee, which gives them blanket permission to use the song as many times as they like. However, there's one caveat. Because licenses can be different, users will need to specify what kind of license they're using it under, whether for TV/film/commercial use or to play in their business premises. But the principle holds: users just pay once and then the music is theirs to use as they wish.

This is in contrast to typical copyrighted music, for which musicians receive royalties whenever their music is played. Many musicians rely on this as passive income, as one very popular song can compensate a musician for all the work they put into less popular compositions.

Royalty free music, such as that featured on Stock Music, is created by musicians at the top of their game, who are looking for another creative outlet.

These artists create music in all genres, ranging from country to world music. They make an agreement with Stock Music that allows users to put those tracks to work in any number of contexts. In this way, Stock Music offers the best royalty free music and sound effects to enliven soundtracks for:

  • Commercials
  • Presentations
  • Films and TV shows
  • YouTube videos
  • Games

The tracks on Stock Music have fantastic quality, which is why leading brands all over the world rely on them.

Another plus is that royalty free music is crafted with end-users in mind. So, many royalty free tracks are reminiscent of those by popular composers in popular genres, which would be off-limits for most small business owners. Users can search Stock Music by mood, as well — like dreamy or edgy.

The best royalty free music, even of the vintage variety, is produced using modern technology. It sounds slick and well-produced, fitting in well with the needs of the contemporary creator.

Best of all, creators who use royalty free music know that all this music is 100% legal and straightforward to use. So they can easily use the track they fall in love with, without getting hit with a cease and desist, a takedown order, or (worst case scenario) a hefty fine or lawsuit.

Royalty Free Music FAQs

So, can you use royalty free music for commercial use? Here are answers to all the pressing questions creators may have about royalty free music.

Can I use royalty free music on YouTube?


Can you use royalty free music commercially? 


Can I use royalty free music in a video? 


Is royalty free the same as commercial use? 

No, as mentioned above, "royalty free" refers to music where users pay a one-off license fee and can then use the music. But royalty free music can be put to commercial use, i.e., for-profit to play at a business or put in ads.

Can I use a public domain song in a video?

Yes, but as mentioned above, it can be hard to find out if a recording truly is in the public domain.

What is free for commercial use?

Royalty free music can be used commercially once users pay the one-off fee. Public domain music can be used commercially, but one has to make sure it is in the public domain.

Public Domain vs Royalty Free Music: In Conclusion

Royalty free music like that on Stock Music is easy to search, easy to use, and designed with the needs of the contemporary creator in mind. Whether creators are looking for unobtrusive, elegant music or something more showy and intense, they're bound to find what they're looking for and do so efficiently and rapidly.

If creators are looking for classical music, they may find it easier in the royalty free realm. Stock Music has a large classical collection that is free of copyright issues.

Public domain music has its charms but also has pitfalls. These include the following:

  • Scratchy recordings and anachronistic music
  • Difficulty in searching methodically for what creators are looking for
  • Music that is mislabeled public domain when it is copyrighted

No wonder many leading brands and creators turn to royalty free music sites like Stock Music for their needs. Stock Music works with leading composers and makes their music searchable by genre, mood, instrumentation, and tempo. It also offers an easy one-off licensing fee to access the music.

In short, royalty free music exists to make your life as a videographer, presentation creator, advertiser, or creator that much easier. Creators who are looking for music to enhance the power of their project and not get them into sticky situations with copyright should get onto Stock Music today. With Stock Music, they can find a piece of music that's perfect for their project and free from creative headaches and copyright strings attached. Ultimately, it's more reliable than the public domain.

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