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The Difference Between Copyrighted Sheet Music and Public Domain Sheet Music


There are two main types of sheet music available these days:  public domain or free sheet music and copyrighted sheet music.  While both might look identical on the page, there are some key differences in how these two types of sheet music can be used.  Some sheet music will be clearly marked as either copyrighted or in the public domain, however, not all sheet music is this obvious.  If it is not marked either way, assume that it is copyrighted until you have proof otherwise.


Public Domain Sheet Music Usage:

If you find a piece of public domain sheet music, you have the ability to use it as you wish.  This can include making recordings of it, copying it and distributing it, or using it as a starting point for an original work.  Public domain sheet music is just that – public.  Nobody owns the rights to it, so all may use it, but no one can claim it as solely their own (not even the original creator).  Once a piece of music is in the public domain, it cannot be copyrighted afterwards.


Copyrighted Sheet Music Usage:

If a piece of music is copyrighted, then there are restrictions on how and when it can be used.  These often include restrictions on who can perform the piece in public, who can copy or distribute the sheet music, and who can use the music in other ways as well.  In most cases, if you want to use a piece of copyrighted sheet music, you will need to get permission from the publisher or original creator and will often need to pay a royalty fee as well.