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montysimmons, Patent Prosecutor
Category: Intellectual Property Law
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Experience:  Electrical Engineer, South Carolina Attorney, Member of US Patent Bar
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Hi. Im a minister and we want to write some songs for the

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Hi. I'm a minister and we want to write some songs for the ministry. We are creating our own lyrics but the melodies belong to other authors. We want to know how, what and where we go to get the copyright permission to use the melody in the songs? do we owe loyalties when we sell the mp3 to the original author of the melody we are using for our songs?
(1) “Where do we go to get copyright permission to use the melody in a song?”

One contacts the owner of the copyright for the song one desires to use. The difficult questions are: (a) is there a valid copyright still in force, and (b) who owns it and what is the owner’s contact information. These issues will be addressed in more detail below.

(2) Will you own royalties for using the melodies?

If there is a valid copyright in force, whether or not one must pay a royalty to the copyright owner to use a song depends on the owner of the copyright.

Such owner could simply give you permission at no cost or he could demand a royalty in return for giving you permission to use the song.

Now, a song that is not protected by a valid copyright is considered to be in the “public domain”. Stuff in the public domain is generally free to use.

Thus, if no valid copyright, song is in the public domain and you pay nothing to use the song.

Now be careful, when one authors/creates their own derivative work using an old song in the public domain, the “New” portion of such work is protect by a copyright owned by the new author.

So you want to make sure the version of the song you use is an old version not covered by copyright. Of course, if you generate your own version of a song in the public domain using your own instruments and talent there will be no problem and you will own a copyright in your work as explained further below.

So here are the issues.

(1) If the songs (melodies) ARE in the public domain, then you do not need to obtain copyright permission to use the melodies and such use is free from charge.

And, the “new part” (i.e. your lyrics) will be protected by copyright as a derivative work. So you will own a copyright in the derivative work. However, to enforce your copyright you will need to register your work with the US copyright office. You can do it yourself and it cost about $50.

(2) If the songs (melodies) are NOT in the public domain, then you WILL need to obtain copyright permission to use the melodies.

So how to determine if a song is in the public domain . . . a little tricky.


(1) Unpublished works: author known : Life of author + 70 years (works from authors who died before 1943 now in public domain);

(2) Unpublished anonymous works, works for hire : 120 years from date of creation (Public Domain: works created before 1893);

(3) Unpublished works where author date of death not known . . 120 years from date of creation (Public domain if created before 1893)


(4) Published Before 1923: None : work in public domain;

(5) Published 1923 - 1997: Published without copyright notice - in public domain;

(6) 1878-1989 - Published without notice and without registration for 5 years - in public domain;

(7) 1923 - 1963 : Published with notice but copyright not renewed - in public domain;

(8) 1964 - 1977 : Published with notice : 95 years after publication date;

(9) 1978 to 1989 : Created before 1978 and published with notice : (copyright probably valid till December 2047);

(10) March 1989 through 2002 : Created after 1977 : 70 years after the death of author, for corporate authorship 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation;

(11) march 1989 through 2002 : Created before 1978 and published in same period : copyright probably valid until December 2047;

(12) after 2002 : 70 years after death of author, 95 year from publication or 120 years from creation for corporation;

(13) Works prepared by government employee or agent as part of official duty : IN Public Domain.


One can search registration records at the link above.
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