My recent post on Joel Friedlander’s TheBookDesigner.com about getting permission to use lyrics has been a big hit. But a few writers have asked me for sources of public domain lyrics. I have a list below.
But first, a little about public domain works in general.
Any work in the public domain is free to use without permission or compensation. You should, however, always give credit to the original creator out of respect and to avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is not a legal claim; it’s more of a moral or professional standard.
The most common reason a copyrighted work falls into the public domain is the copyright has expired.
Any song first published or recorded in the United States before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain. This includes many rag time and early blues songs. Examples:
- Take Me Out To the Ball Game by Ed Meeker
- Swing Low Sweet Chariot
- Jelly Roll Blues by Jelly Roll Martin
Keep in mind, that only the sheet music and lyrics are in the public domain. Any recording of these songs after December 31, 1922 as well as any lyrics or arrangements added after that date might still be protected by copyright.
For music first published or recorded in the United States between 1923 and 1977, the copyright expiration depends on whether a copyright notice was properly placed, whether the copyright was registered, and whether the registration was renewed. You could track down, or hire someone to track down, whether the copyright was lost, but it may be simpler to assume your need permission.
I are covering only the U.S. in this e-book. If the lyrics you want to use were first published in another country, the laws of that other country will apply.
Where to find public domain song lyrics.
A number of websites list, collect and sometimes sell reprints of public domain songs. Some of these sites also include works that may still be subject to copyright, so be sure to check the copyright status of any work you intend to use. For U.S. works, only those first published or recorded before 1923 are within the public domain. Assume anything first published or recorded in 1923 or later is still protected by copyright.
Take a look at each site’s policies on copyright and reproduction before you download. Some require that you give them credit, and others request a reproduction fee.
The Public Domain Information Project provides a wealth of information about public domain music. They list thousands of public domain music titles, plus you can buy reprints for a small price. They also offer some “stock” music for licensing, again at reasonable prices.
The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University’s Eisenhower Library has more than 29,000 pieces of American popular music. The collection spans 1780 to 1980 and documents nineteenth-century America through popular music, especially music spawned by military conflicts from the War of 1812 through World War I.
Historic American Sheet Music Project (1850-1920) . The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University provides access to digital images of 3042 pieces published in the United States between 1850 and 1920. You may use their images for non-commercial purposes and must provide a citation. In other words, they claim a copyright in their image of the lyrics, not the lyrics themselves. If you want to use their images for commercial purposes, contact them for permission. The lyrics are still in the public domain.
Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885, American Memories, The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is an incredible resource for public domain lyrics, recordings, images and text.
African American Sheet Music (1850-1920), Brown University has one of the largest collections of sheet music in the United States, primarily vocal music of American imprints, from the 18th century to the present day, with the largest concentration of titles in the period 1840-1950. One of the most important categories consists of music by and relating to African Americans.
19th-Century American Sheet Music Digitization, The Nineteenth Century American Sheet Music Collection at the UNC-Chapel Hill Music Library includes approximately 3,500 popular vocal and instrumental titles from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century.
19th-Century California Sheet Music, University of California, Berkeley, has a virtual library of some 2,700 pieces of sheet music published in California between 1852 and 1900.
Loeb Music Library at Harvard University has a music index with over 30,000 titles from 1560 to 1830. The scores and libretti in this Virtual Collection include first and early editions and manuscript copies of music from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by J.S. Bach and Bach family members, Mozart, Schubert and other composers, as well as multiple versions of nineteenth century opera scores, seminal works of musical modernism, and music of the Second Viennese School.
The International Music Score Library Project/Petrucci Music Library has a compilation of nearly 190,000 musical scores.
If you know of any other sites that compile and share public domain lyrics, please post the links in the Comments. Thank you.SHARE THIS
Your first piece on lyrics, copyright and fair use was very instructive. Thanks so much for this companion piece. I’m sure it will come in very handy.
I need permission to use the lyrics from Tommy hortons sink the bismarcks.i want to use it in a book that will commemorate three soldiers who died in the Hood.
MErcedes penney, Go to the Resources page of my website and download How to use Memorable Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer. It will explain the process.
Seeking public domain lyrics jelly roll morton