6 songs surprisingly in the public domain

Sometimes music megacorps screw up and songs like The Beatles' "Love Me Do" become public property.

October 30, 2015

Copyright law is so arcane and inscrutable, you might as well be looking at a wizard’s spellbook most of time. The clarity of the rules governing intellectual property isn’t helped by the fact that every country has their own territorial rights over the material, leaving many works that may be in the public domain in say, Italy, still vociferously guarded under copyright in North America. Sound recordings are especially incomprehensible much of the time, with a song’s copyrights branching out to three main rights: the right to produce or copy the actual written music, the mechanical and synchronization rights, ie, digital audio copies and use them in conjunction with film and video, and the right to actually perform the musical work in public, either in person or through a broadcast.

Here in Canada, in the infinite wisdom of our now-outgoing government, the copyright on unpublished sound recordings were extended back in June 2015, so that any song that is published before the copyright expires is granted a term of either 100 years from copyright fixation or 70 years from publication, whichever comes first. This is an enormous boon to the holders of valuable copyrights, who can now effectively hold an extra 20 years (up from 50) of copyright on everything still-relevant from the ’60s, from the Beatles to the Beach Boys…and all they have to do is release limited-run, no-effort throwaway copyright extension compilations like this to do it. This endless parade of copyright giveaways to corporations only leads to soundalike problems down the line at best and utter contempt of the public at worst. For more perils of limitless copyright, read Spider Robinson’s short story Melancholy Elephants, a work which is conveniently available under a Creative Commons license right here.

Still, even with any copyright worth anything vigorously defended by increasingly-irrelevant music megacorps, some slip through and the songs actually end up in the public domain, as they should. Here are 6 of them.

“Take Me Out To The Ball Game”

The original 1908 music and lyrics to the ballpark standby are now in the public domain in the US and the UK, so all you’ve got to worry about when creating your perfect beer league soundtrack is lugging an organ out to the diamond.

“House of the Rising Sun”

While The Animals’ iconic arrangement of the traditional folk song is certainly still very much under copyright, nobody can claim the rights to the original music and lyrics since the original songwriter is unknown. The oldest known recording of the song is a version from 1933 by Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who said he learned it from his grandfather.

“Happy Birthday”

Surprising only in that it took so long, the legal battle over the copyright status of the world’s most famous song may have finally come to a close last month, when a Los Angeles federal court judge ruled that the song was indeed in the public domain. The ruling stated that the music publishing company claiming copyright only had the rights to a specific arrangement of the song, and not the tune as a whole. Finally, our beloved movie and TV characters can sing the royalty-free real deal instead of “Zum Geburtstag vie Glück,” or whatever this thing is.

“Love Me Do” (Europe and Canada only)

Though the European Union and Canada have extended copyright protection from 50 to 70 years, the copyright on the original recording of “Love Me Do” was not applied retroactively, meaning that anyone could distribute the recording as long as they pay a publishing fee. Here in Canada, a company called Stargrove Entertainment started doing just that, before the licenses for the recordings mysteriously stopped being forthcoming from the major labels. I’m sure it’s just some kind of mistake, and not the major labels freaking out over the exploitation of one of their most valuable assets.

“Rockin’ Robin”

The copyright on singer Bobby Day’s original version of “Rockin’ Robin” was never renewed, leaving the music and lyrics free for all to cover to their heart’s content, royalty-free. Just don’t try it with Michael Jackson’s hit 1972 arrangement of the song, which is still under copyright.

“That’s All Right”

Though Elvis made the song famous (“That’s All Right” was his first commercially recorded song), Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s original music and lyrics of what would come to be a candidate for the first rock and roll song are in the public domain. There’s nothing stopping you from kickstarting Kickstarting the next musical revolution, right here and now. Just be sure to give credit where credit is due.

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