The simple answer: a piece of work is considered public domain when intellectual property rights have expired, been forfeited, or are inapplicable. For example the works of Shakespeare, some Beethoven pieces, the formulae of Newtonian physics and most early silent films. For intellectual property to enter into the domain, it must have expired its copyright terms. This could simply be the lifetime of the author, but it could also extend 50-70 years beyond the death of the author.
Recently, the lyrics to the Happy Birthday song were no longer under copyright. Clayton F, Summy Company registered the copyright, working with the creators of the Happy Birthday song in 1935. At the time, it seems that it was just the lyrics of the song. A judge ruled that the original copyright was for only the melody. The melody was already public domain. Because of this ruling, Warner/Chappell will lose about $2 million annually through royalties of the Happy Birthday song.
To make things more difficult, each country has different copyright laws about intellectual property, especially when it comes to music. Here are a couple of links that will be useful for you as you investigate the logistics of using published songs instead of “made-for-on-hold music”: http://www.pdinfo.com/public-domain-music-list.php for the US and http://copyright.ubc.ca/guidelines-and-resources/support-guides/public-domain/ for Canada
For example, Christmas time at On-Hold Marketing can be a challenge for us. Everyone wants to hear familiar songs…especially at this time of year. As much as we would like to give our customers their choice of any Christmas Carol, we can only use carols that fall into public domain. Here is a great PDF that shows you what dilemma we face. http://members.cdbaby.com/campaigns/holiday-guide-public-domain.pdf.
As you can see, the world of copyright can be very complicated. But there are lots of resources out there to help you find what you are looking for! Or, choose pieces from our extensive licensed library…no research required!
“Walt Disney built an empire by taking public domain works like Cinderella and dressing them up with his imagination.” – Steve Urquhart