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Public Domain Question

Sharon asks…

Is it legal to show public domain movies from a DVD?

The DVDs have a notice on them saying that you can’t, of course, but public domain movies are owned by the public. Do they really have the right to restrict you from using their copy of the movie? If so, then where did they get the movie from themselves?

scottparat answers:

If the DVD has a notice on them saying you can’t, they aren’t public domain. If someone owns the copyright (patent, trademark, etc.) to the work it isn’t public domain.

You are restricted by the terms allowed by the copyright holder.

What is the movie? (And they may have paid the copyright holder for distribution rights.)

Mark asks…

Is there an inexpensive way to know if a song is in the public domain?

Before the internet I asked this question of a real professional music producer, and she told me that usually songs that have been around for 100 years or more are public domain and sometimes when the artist dies their work becomes public domain.

But the only way to know for sure is to hire a lawyer to do a search, which is expensive.

In this day and age is there a better way to find out if you can legally use a song without paying any royalties?

scottparat answers:

The only sure way is to hire a lawyer to do a search, which is expensive. However, what you could do is actually buy some music from companies that specialize in royalty free music for artists, movie makers, etc to use in their projects.

Fairly safe bets are older classical and traditional folk music–but usually not recordings of the music which are under copyright, especially if they are very specific arrangements. For example, the hymn “Amazing Grace” is considered to be in the public domain. But not an eight-part choral arrangment with full orchestra and bagpipe solo. Somebody–usually someone still alive–had to write that arrangement and would be protected under copyright laws.

Plus the copyright laws vary from country to country. The reliable IMSLP database that has pdf files of sheet music (mostly classical) is Canadian. Some songs in the public domain in Canada, are not available as such in the United States. There is a disclaimer attached to every song and piece on the database.

China on the other hand, could care less about copyrights, trademarks, etc. They are world leaders in pirated EVERYTHING.

Then again, it depends on how, where, when, etc you plan to use the music in question. School music teachers are given a great deal of leeway. If you wanted to use certain music in a commercially released film seen by millions of people, you need to be way certain you have complete clearance to use something.

There has been problems with political rallies or commercials that used a certain song which they probably cleared with some licensing company. Unfortunately, they didn’t clear it with the original artists who got pissed off that their music was being used for a cause or politician they didn’t support and came out in public to complain and insist that the music no longer be used.


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