Mechanical Licensing for Silly Love Songs: Public Domain vs. Copyrighted Works

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This article was written by Alex Holz of Limelight, a company that has partnered with CD Baby to help indie artists properly clear licenses for cover songs. The article originally appeared on Limelight’s blog.

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Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs (especially for Valentine’s Day) and we at Limelight see nothing wrong with that!

When Limelight users start preparing their themed-album releases (love songs, standards, Broadway musicals, etc.), they often ask: “What constitutes a public domain composition?”

The U.S. Copyright Office defines public domain as:  “A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection.”  In the United States, music written before 1923 is generally considered to be public domain.

Many artists and labels who follow the Golden Rule of Licensing (“if you don’t own or control it, you need a license to use it”) know that public domain compositions are one of the few exceptions since tracks within the public domain don’t require a mechanical license or royalty payments made to music publishers.

One important point to consider — even though a song may be found in the public domain, a copyrighted arrangement of that song may exist (which would require a license) check first.  An excellent rule of thumb – if you used sheet music to learn it, you can often find the copyright information there.

The songs listed below are just a small sample of love songs that are in the public domain.

  • “I Love You Truly” (Carrie Jacobs Bond)
  • “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (Leo Friedman, Beth Slater Whitson)
  • “I Can’t Tell Why I Love You, But I Do” (Will Cobb, Gus Edwards)
  • “For Me and My Gal” (George W. Meyer, Edgar Leslie, and E. Ray Goetz
  • “You Made Me Love You” (James Monaco, Joseph McCarthy)
  • “Sweet Adeline” (Harry Armstrong, Richard Gerard)
  • Also numerous classical works, including: “Gymnopedie” (Erik Satie) and “Clair de Lune” (Claude Debussy)

Many classic love songs that are presumed to be in the public domain are in fact copyrighted, so make sure to double-check your sources before deciding a track is public domain.  PD Info Online (www.pdinfo.com) is an excellent starting point if the liner notes and copyright information are unavailable.  In addition, a simple Google search with “written by” and “published” or “copyright date” alongside the song title often presents information related to the song’s initial copyright date.  This is by no means an exhaustive method for determining public domain, but can be helpful.

Here are just a few classic love songs that would require a mechanical license:

Love Songs that are not in the public domain and require a Mechanical License (Writer/Composer)

  • “At Last” (Mack Gordon, Harry Warren)
  • “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore)
  • “My Funny Valentine” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart)
  • “Embraceable You” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)
  • “Night and Day” (Cole Porter)
  • “The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson)
  • “You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher)
  • “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton)
  • “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Cole Porter)
  • “True Love Ways” (Buddy Holly)

Securing a mechanical license can be a difficult task, but Limelight helps artists, school groups, choirs, record labels, and more in clearing the appropriate rights and paying songwriters and publishers.  If you have any questions about Limelight, don’t hesitate to reach out – our Support Staff is always willing to help!

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  • bladewalker

    It's interesting that you don't address (in this post or "LICENSING MUSIC: Cover songs, samples, public domain") a very important facet of all this… the mechanical license you acquire is only for sales/downloads, but doesn't cover streaming. An artist can't let a user play the song on the artist's website (as an artist very often is inclined to do, so a user can listen before buying), or on MySpace, or CDBaby, SoundClick, etc. … it can only be downloaded, and you must pay for each download… so that pretty much rules out letting the cover song be podcast, lest you be left holding a bill for every download of that podcast. You have to maintain strict control over how the song's used/distributed according to the license, even if you want to just let people hear it for free.

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  • Interesting point. Worth mentioning — interactive streaming is covered under Limelight's umbrella of licensing configurations (physical, digital, streaming, and ringtones). You do need a separate license for full-length interactive streaming, though there is a general industry practice that promotional preview samples tied directly to sales are often included when you secure a digital download (DPD) license. In addition, most online music services handle the streaming licenses and royalties on an artist's behalf where it's written into their licensing terms and applicable.

  • slanderpanda

    I am using cdbaby to distribute my band's album and we have covered a short excerpt of a public domain song (Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag"). How do I go about listing "Composer", "Publisher" etc.? I thought I did it correctly (Ticked the "Cover Song" box, listed Composer as Scott Joplin, and the Publisher as My band), though I got an email back saying this was incorrect and they couldn't process the album any further until I fixed it. What should I do?

    • Actually, if the song is in the public domain, it is NOT a cover song. So click "No" for cover song. List "Public Domain" as the publisher. And Scott Joplin as composer. That should do it!

      • slanderpanda

        Thanks for the help Chris! All fixed up. Eagerly excited for our music to be processed now! Thanks again!