How does Copyright work for sound recordings

Previously there was no federal registration of copyright for sound recordings until the first legislation was passed in 1972. Prior to that time, published sound recordings were protected by common law, state and local copyright laws. In 1972 Congress specified that common law, state and local copyright laws were not superseded by later legislation for 75 years after 1972, subsequently extended to 95 years (Title 17, Chapter 3, Section 301c). This means that sound recordings published before 1972 were protected from the time they were created until the year 2067.

On October 11, 2018 Congress passed the Music Modernization Act which extended federal copyright protection to recordings created before 1972. Not only do the provisions of the act create new federal protection for older recordings, but they also specify clear expiration dates for this coverage.

The law now provides that

  • For recordings first published before 1923,  the copyright term ends on December 31, 2021.
  • Recordings first published between 1923-1946 are protected for 100 years.
  • Recordings first published between 1947-1956 are protected for 110 years.
  • For all remaining recordings first made prior to February 15, 1972, protection shall end on February 15, 2067.
  • Recorded after February 15, 1972, 95 years from publication or 120 years from recording date, whichever is shorter.

There may be some recordings outside the range of this legislation, such as recordings made and published in certain foreign countries during certain periods of time. 

Keep in mind that there are two copyrights in sound recordings: the right to the recording itself, and also the right to the underlying work, often a song or piece of music. The copyright holder of a song has an interest in a recording of that song as well as the party that recorded it. Performing artists, composers, lyricists, authors, publishers, unions, record companies, and their heirs are examples of parties that may have interests in sound recordings.

None of the above should be taken as copyright advice. A lawyer should be consulted for specific advice.


Last Updated: Sep 08, 2020   Views: 5

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Recorded Sound Reference Center
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Washington, D.C. 20540-4690

Please Note

We cannot provide lists of recordings in the public domain, perform copyright searches, provide extensive research including compiling discographies, provide language instruction tapes or books on tape for the visually disabled (see NLS), and/or offer appraisals.

Copyright Note: due to copyright restrictions the vast majority of sound recordings are not available online nor will they enter the public domain until the year 2067.