Lets say I made professional music with the hope of selling them from public domain MIDI files. The files would have been modified slightly with the notes arranged slightly differently. Would that be legal?

Are the files from this site legal?

To clarify, I took the files off of this site, put then into GarageBand, changed the instrument the files were playing, and then looped a ten second clip of it adding drums, bass, etc. I moved the clips around to create my own spin on the files.

Please note: I am aware of the definition of “public domain” and what it means if something is in it.

I live in the US

  • 1
    Works in the public domain aren't protected by Copyright (by definition). None of the protections of Copyright apply, including the monopoly on making derivative works.
    – ikegami
    Dec 21, 2020 at 18:54
  • Therefore what I did is legal? (And ethical)?
    – user35902
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:52
  • @MusicMan This site has nothing to do with ethics Dec 21, 2020 at 22:52
  • No, but silence at that time I was under the impression that my question had been answered I felt that it was an opportune place to ask that question.
    – user35902
    Dec 21, 2020 at 23:04

1 Answer 1


These files are not public domain

Read it carefully, it only says “public domain musical compositions in a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file format.”

The compositions are public domain, the MIDI files aren’t - they are a derivative work (a translation) covered by their own copyright. Specifically, “© Copyright 2001 University of Arizona. All rights reserved” right next to a big “Contact us” link. Literary and artistic works that are derived (legally) from existing works have independent copyright even if the original no longer does. Mozart, for example, did not write his compositions in MIDI format.

Now, it may be the intention of the University of Arizona that you can use it but, if so, they have not made this clear. It’s possible that the authors (mistakenly) thought that because the originals were public domain, their derivatives would be too. The music school should have talked to someone from the law school.

All of the purposes that they talk about on the “Purpose” page are equally applicable to widely licensed (e.g. everyone) or narrowly controlled (e.g. staff of the University).

Overall, a prudent person would assume that these works are copyright of the University of Arizona and can’t be used without permission or a fair use exemption. Your proposed usage is not fair use.

However, there is a big “Contact us” link on every page so you can always ask for permission.

  • I understand U of A thinks the MIDI files are copyright and I agree about prudence but is a MIDI file a translation or a transliteration? A non-creative, mechanical transliteration would arguably not result in a new copyrightable expression Dec 21, 2020 at 21:29
  • Shoot, I had assumed it was copyright for the webpage design.
    – user35902
    Dec 21, 2020 at 21:43
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    @MusicMan bits on a hard drive are a “tangible form”
    – Dale M
    Dec 21, 2020 at 22:23
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    @MusicMan the university calls these "useable" music files and says that the files are designed "to be manipulated to suit individual needs." The assessment in this answer that the university has not made their intention clear that you can use the files is not well founded. Furthermore, as George White has noted, mechanical transcription is not covered, so it's very likely that these files are not protected in the US. And I think you were right that the copyright notice is intended to refer to the webpage design and the text, so even if they're protected, U of A probably won't claim anything.
    – phoog
    Dec 22, 2020 at 6:06
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    @phoog from the description it appears that there has been considerably more effort in these files than simple transcription. It’s also not clear if any implicit permission that may be there is just for staff/students or the general public.
    – Dale M
    Dec 22, 2020 at 7:12