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Is classical music copyrighted?

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Classical music copyright

Classical music, for its cultural relevance, is widely used by musicians and artists all around the world. Some choose to re-record their version of well-known pieces, while others use them as background music. Either way, the topic of copyright protection is important to discuss. Nobody wants to be found guilty of copyright infringement!

In this article, we’re covering everything you need to know about copyright as a classical music artist. Let’s dive right into it!

Let’s start with the basics, aka what exactly copyright is. Copyright is defined as a type of intellectual property that aims to protect original work of authorship. Once a person creates an original work, fixed in a tangible medium (e.g. written down on a paper, recorded, etc.), and registered with the local Commercial Management Organisation (CMO), they ‘automatically’ own the copyright to the created work.

As a result , this copyright ownership gives the owner an exclusive right to use, copy, adapt, distribute, and perform the creative work, usually for a limited time. Created work with copyright protection cannot be legally used without an official permission (typically a license).

Examples of types of works eligible for copyright protection:

  • Audiovisual works, such as films, TV shows, and online videos

  • Sound recordings and musical compositions (sheet music)

  • Dramatic works, like theater plays or musicals

  • Written works, such as books, articles, lectures

  • Visual works, including paintings, posters, advertisement

  • Video games and computer softwares

Classical Music copyright protection

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is traditionally not physical in nature and refers to creations of mind and the rights in law that protect them. This means that anything created by humans that is regarded as an artistic, cultural, or scientific creation is considered intellectual property. This can include music, inventions, narratives in books, designs, and more.

The greater attention within the topic, however, is on intellectual property rights. These are implemented to enable people to earn recognition and/or financial benefit for the things they create and invent. Based on the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), there are 6 main types of intellectual property rights — patents, trademarks, industrial designs, geographical indications, trade secrets and copyrights.

Intellectual Property iMusician

Source: Ottawe Business Journal

As mentioned above, copyright usually lasts for a limited amount of time. The duration of copyright protection generally depends on the jurisdiction in the particular country, typically ranging between 50-100 years after the creator dies.


Under the current law, in the US, works created after January 1, 1978, have a copyright protection term of the lifetime of the author plus 70 years after they die. If the work was created by more than just one author, the copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the last author.

In case it concerns an anonymous work or work made for hire, the copyright is valid for 95 years from the work’s publication, or 120 years from the work’s creation. Works created before 1978 are subject to a different timeframe.

The UK

While the jurisdiction in the USA seems rather straightforward, in the UK, it is more complex. There, the copyright duration depends on the type of the work created. For written, dramatic, musical, artistic works, as well as films, copyright doesn’t expire until 70 years after the author’s death while in the case of the layout of published editions of written, dramatic and musical works, it is not until 25 years from the date of first publication.

Sound and music recordings are subjected to copyright protection that lasts for 70 years from the date of first publication. If the protection concerns broadcasts, it lasts for 50 years from the date of first broadcast.


In the countries of the EU, copyright protects your intellectual property until 70 years after your death or, if it is a joint authorship, 70 years after the death of the last author. Outside the European Union, in countries which signed so-called ‘Berne Conventions’, the length of copyright may vary but lasts for a minimum of 50 years after the author dies.


In Switzerland, just like in the countries of the EU, the protection is valid for 70 years after the passing of the respective copyright owner. The only exception are computer programs, for which the protection lasts for 50 years after the program was invented.

Once the copyright protection of a created work is no longer valid, the piece enters the so-called Public Domain. From that moment on, the work belongs to everyone (and, at the same time, no one) and can be used — copied, distributed, adapted, performed, and displayed in public — free of charge, without the need of any permission from the original author.

Music in the Public Domain is also royalty-free, meaning that you don’t need to pay royalties every time you want to use the track (as it no longer belongs to anyone).

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Copyrighting in classical music

What does this all mean for me as a classical music artist, you may ask? Classical music, just like any other genre, falls under copyright. This means that if you potentially want to use a composition that has copyright protection, you can legally do so only with an official permission from the work’s copyright owner (often in the form of a license).

However, classical music is somewhat different from other genres, in the sense that many of the compositions by well-known composers were written and published a long time ago.

Nevertheless, just because a composition is no longer under the protection of copyright —, meaning it is now part of the Public Domain —, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the work can be used freely. This is when it all starts getting a bit complicated.

That is because in every song, there are not one but two copyrights that one needs to consider — one is for the songwriting and one is for the sound recording of the composition. This means that while nobody owns the composition anymore, somebody may still own the recording(s) and arrangement(s).

Let’s say that you really love the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven and are considering using it in some way. If your intention with the composition is to perform it publicly or re-record and then monetize it, then you’re completely free to do that.

In fact, once you re-record the song, you’ll become the copyright owner of your Moonlight Sonata recording. If anyone happened to love your recording and use it for their own commercial purposes, they would need to ask you for your permission.

If, however, you bought a CD with a recording of the Moonlight Sonata on it and decided to make copy of the composition and distribute it; or make it a background music in your project; or use the recording for any other commercial purposes, then you will most likely need an official permission from the owner of the recording.

We say ‘most likely’ because sound recording copyright protection has a certain duration, too. In the European Union, since 2013, sound recordings are protected for 70 years after their first publication. In the USA, it is a bit more complicated:

  • Recordings made before 1923 entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2022;

  • Recordings made between 1923 and 1946 will be protected for 100 years after their publication;

  • Recordings made between 1947 and 1956 will be protected for 110 after the publication; and

  • All recordings made between 1957 and February 15, 1972 will enter the Public Domain in 2067.

With that being said, it’s still better to do a thorough research or consult with a lawyer if a particular sound recording is indeed free to use without a license. If you happen to commercially use a copyrighted recording without an official permission, you are guilty of copyright infringement. As a result, you can end up being sued, which can turn out extremely costly.

Using Public Domain music for digital content and campaigns

Let’s imagine you’re creating digital content for your online presence or working on an exciting project, and you would like to incorporate some type of classical music. What can be the next possible steps?

Royalty-free classical music

If there’s no particular composition you like and copyright protection is a topic you don’t want to deal with, royalty-free classical music can be a good option for you. Don’t get mistaken, it’s royalty-free, not cost-free. This means that it does cost money to use it, but the only thing you pay for is the so-called ‘royalty-free license’. Once you purchase it (or subscribe to it), you don’t pay any royalties.

There are plenty of royalty-free music sources available online, like Epidemic Sound or Artlist, and as already outlined, most of them are subscription-based. What you need to do is to subscribe to their services to use any of the royalty-free songs in their catalogs. If you’d like to learn more about royalty-free music, check out our guide on music licensing!

Make your own recording

In case you have your eyes on a particular recording but requesting and purchasing a license is not in your interest, you can decide to make your own recording of the composition. As long as the composition really is in the Public Domain, you can re-record it without a license.

This option, however, very much depends on your artistic expertise. If you’re a piano player and the composition you’ve chosen is a piano ballad, then this can be a great opportunity for you to not only use your version of the song in your digital content, but also to have it distributed and monetized on various streaming platforms and digital stores.

If this is not your case, you can also have someone else record it for you. However, for that, you will definitely need to pay, which may not really be worth it.

Get a music license

The last option is to simply choose the recording you like and get a license to be able to use it (if you’re okay with spending money on it). The license you will need to acquire in this case is the so-called ‘master license’, which will transfer you the usage rights to the original recording of the song (the master). Additionally, the license will also authorize you to use the recording in audiovisual projects, including commercial videos on YouTube or any other platform, video ads, movies, TV series, etc.

The master license is usually held by the record companies that have recorded the piece of music. To obtain the license, you can either contact the licensing department of the recording company (if there is one) or go to a particular CMO or Performing Rights Organization. These organizations will either be able to grant you the license or provide you with the contact information to the record label.

To learn more about master licenses, PROs/CMOs and music licensing in general, don’t hesitate to check out our music licensing guide! Also, if you'd like to gain more knowledge about royalties, check out the video below!

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As you can see, copyright protection, whether it concerns classical, pop or electronic music, can be quite intricate. If you feel overwhelmed by all the information in the article, the most important knowledge to take away from it is the following. If you’re not sure a composition is in the Public Domain (although it was written ages ago), don’t risk using it without consulting a specialist.

Similarly, don’t make commercial use of an already existing recording without obtaining a necessary license. The likelihood that the recording doesn't fall under copyright protection is close to zero.

Copyright infringement is a serious issue that can have a detrimental effect on both your financial situation and your music career. If you happen to use a song and later realize that it was, in fact, copyrighted, our best advice would be to immediately take down everything that includes the song (the composition, sound recording, or both).

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Get tips on How to Succeed as an Artist, receive Music Distribution Discounts, and get the latest iMusician news sent straight to your inbox! Everything you need to grow your music career.