This page provides basic instructions for verifying if a music score is in the public domain.
For a simple description of copyright and the public domain, see IMSLP:Copyright Made Simple. For a more detailed description, see: Public domain. Any questions should be directed to the forums.
How to verify if your copy is in public domain
You should do some basic research if you are planning to upload a score that is not yet identified as public domain. You should first determine the year of death for the composer and for any other person who was involved in the creation of the work in question (the last surviving contributor). This would include arrangers, editors, authors of original texts and translators. Works of composers, arrangers and text authors who died less than 50 years ago are not eligible. The work of an editor who died less than 50 years ago might be provided the items in question was published over 25 years ago and the editing is of a minimalist "urtext" nature. It is likewise important to find the year and place of the first publication of the particular item you wish to upload, especially for any composer who died after 1949.
- On most scores, the year in which the score is copyrighted is printed on the first page of music. Notices also appear on the title page, the title page verso (back side), or even a contents or instrumentation page. However, many European scores from the 1800s all the way up through the 1980s bear no copyright notice. Absence of a copyright notice is no longer a guarantee that a given work is public domain in the USA!
- You can look up date ranges for publishers, locations, and other helpful information (plate number styles) on the Historical Publication Info page, or the pages devoted to specific publishers that are linked there, like Breitkopf und Härtel.
- There are some ways to estimate the publication date. One is to identify the editor of the score, whose name typically appears on the first page of music and/or title page, and google or wiki him to determine whether he's in public domain yet. There are also bibliographies of specific composers that give extensive info on dates of first publication and reissues, the original publisher, successor publishers, addresses, retail prices, plate numbers, engravers, and printers. James J. Fuld's The Book of World Famous Music is particularly rich in such information. Lastly, you could look up the publisher's information either via the web or printed catalogs. Some publishing companies were defunct before the magical year (for US copyright status) of 1923. Others keep a database with old publications on their website.
- Look up the publisher's information in library catalogs. Many libraries keep publication information like dates, plate numbers, editors in their database.
- Juilliard On-Line Catalog has a comprehensive database with plate and edition numbers.
- Indiana University keeps plate and edition numbers for some works.
- Worldcat does not always list full bibliographic information, but almost all publications are in Worldcat. However, some plate numbers seem to be in a 'concealed' way in their database; entering a plate number in the search function will very often give the right hits.
- The back covers of old scores often contain valuable information, such as a list of publications by the same publisher in print at the time the piece you've scanned was first issued!
- Try a search on Google / Google Scholar with the title of your edition. Often, new editions were reviewed in musical periodicals. If you have access to jstor.org, you will find useful periodicals.
- Sheetmusicplus lets you have a look at the first pages of a score. This is very valuable as you can find edition numbers and plate numbers here!
- Google books include Dover reprints with sample pages available. While there are a fair number of public domain scores available at Google books, they are all marked with the Google logo and include metatags. All logos and metatags must be removed before uploading to IMSLP.
- Musicsack is a good resource in researching music-related people information.
- To research a pre-1951 publication's US copyright renewal status, go to our Catalog of Copyright Entries page. From there, you will find a series of links to scanned volumes of the Catalog of Copyright Entries which are hosted at the Internet Archive. More volumes are gradually being added so that one should eventually be able to search for any music score published between 1923 and 1950. For items published from 1951 through 1963, go to the Copyright Office's search page.
- When you've finished your research, please add the results of your work to one of the pages above to make it easier for other users, and also add information to the file description form to prove that your copy is in the public domain.
Avoid reproducing trademarks and logos
With the relatively recent advent of scanned music, a number of commercial enterprises have been formed to sell scans of public domain works. The three major companies doing this are CD Sheet Music, Everynote, and Elibron. While the content of the scores produced by these three concerns is public domain, any added original material such as prefaces is protected by copyright. Also, the corporate logos of such companies are protected by trademark law. Unlike copyrights, trademarks and logos are legally protected as long as their owner continues to do business using that particular trademark or logo. Thus, even if a current Alfred score in the Kalmus Classic Series is very obviously a reprint of the 19th century Bach Gesellschaft Ausgabe, it is absolutely necessary to remove the corporate logo from any scans one is planning to upload to IMSLP. The same rule applies to all companies presently in business, including Dover, Kalmus, Masters, and Luck's. When in doubt, post a message at the forum before uploading files containing logos and trademarks. The same rule applies for the scans of public domain books and scores which are available at Google Books and the Internet Archive. All logos, added prefaces, and added metatags must be removed before uploading such scores to IMSLP.