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If Sheet Music is Online, Does That Mean It’s In the Public Domain?


While it might be tempting to assume that everything you find online is free sheet music and available for use, that is not necessarily the case.  When dealing with sheet music that you find online, it is important to determine whether it is public domain sheet music or copyrighted sheet music before using it.  Sometimes it is fairly easy to determine whether a piece of music is copyrighted or not, but in some cases, it is much more difficult.


If a piece of sheet music is in the public domain, then you can use it for any of the following purposes: performing it in public, recording it, using it as inspiration for other pieces, and copying/distributing it.  However, if it has a copyright attached to it, then your options are much more limited.  For example, copyrighted pieces usually require royalties (paid to the owner) before you can use it for any purpose (including performing it, distributing it, or recording it).


In order to tell if a piece of sheet music found online is in the public domain or not, one of the first things to do is look for a copyright notice on the music itself.  If you see a notice, then it is likely not in the public domain and can’t be used.  However, be careful, because it is not required to post copyright notices on all copyrighted material – so, just because it isn’t marked, does not mean that it is available for use.  The best method when determining which sheet music you can use is to err on the safe side and only use something if you are very sure it is in the public domain.