I know that copyright of any musical composition expires 70 years after a composer's death.

Does this apply to written forms of such music, like sheet music?

I find many pieces of classical sheet music are marked as copyrighted. I know that if a publisher made a new version or arrangement of public domain music, he can copyright it, but how can someone claim copyright of sheet music that is a direct rendition of musical work that is in the public domain?

  • If someone makes a new edition of a piece by, say, Mozart, they have copyright on that edition, namely in the engraving or computer typesetting, and in any editorial content. Is that what you're getting at? Or are you asking about copyright in recorded performances of public domain works? The concepts are similar there.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 20, 2016 at 8:09
  • It should be noted that "classical" music is a style and not a date. New works of classical music are being composed in 2018, and are, of course, fully protected by copyright. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 0:27

1 Answer 1


In a sheet of music there are several creative actions involved, and therefore several authors with copyright claims, and any of them can be in the public domain or not according to their date of death and (specially in the US) date of publication.

  • The composer. Beware that the work of the composer is just the score he wrote.
  • The arrangements. Beware that most classical pieces have been adapted and are even usually played with musical instruments that hadn't been invented by the time the music was composed. Arrangement creates separate copyright.
  • The layout of the sheet. Even if the notes are just the same the composer wrote, usually changing its graphic form creates a new copyright on the layout.
  • Scanning. Scanning a public domain sheet might create new copyright rights for the person who did the scan in some countries (notably in the UK but not in the US).

In case of performance or recordings of a music piece, there are even more authors with copyright claims (the musicians, the conductor, the people who did the recording...). If you transcribe the recorded music, at least you will risk to infringe the copyright of the arrangement - and probably that of interpreters, too.

If you want to reuse a public domain composition the key point is that you need to identify what is in the public domain and then find a source for it, just to make sure that you are not mixing it with more recent (and copyrighted) material. A safe way would be to go for music scores old enough to be in the public domain - in the US I would go for music scores published before 1923 and in other countries I would search for sheets with editors dead more than 70 years ago (or 80, depending on the country).

If you take a recent sheet, it could be very difficult to tell apart what comes from the composer (and it's in public domain) from what has been added recently, but if you can, you can copy the public domain parts.

Anyway, I'd recommend trying to find scans of XIX century and early XX century sheets on the Internet.

  • If a piece of music which was written and published in 1914 was republished, with new layout, in 1930, but the copyright notice of the republished version does not assert anything other than a 1914 copyright date, would the lack of any contrary notice imply that nothing on the page was deemed to have a copyright later than 1914?
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 19:56
  • 1
    Out of the US, copyright notice is not necessary. Therefore, the new layout is copyrighted (usually until 70 years after the death of author) unless it is so simple that no creativity is involved ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threshold_of_originality ). Also beware that the 1914 author might have died less that 70 years ago, so the 1914 score can be copyrighte. In the us lack of copyright notice is tricky and I think it can be a ground to claim public domain. Anyway, if the original score was published in 1914 in the US it is in public domain and you can publish it in your own layout.
    – Pere
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 20:08
  • I was presuming the works were published in the U.S.; I don't know what countries did or did not require copyright notices in 1930, but the U.S. certainly did. My question was whether the failure to explicitly claim a copyright on a layout would imply that the layout would not be considered a separate work with a separate copyright.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 20:13
  • The layout is a separate work form a different author (in fact, it's a en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derivative_work ), but I don't know if a separate copyright notice was required.
    – Pere
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 20:21

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