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Old Songs Still Copyrighted?

Get all your answers about whether old songs are still copyrighted or not, right here!


The idea that ‘old’ songs are exempt from Song Copyrighted protection is widespread. While this may be true in a few scenarios, it’s crucial to remember that the length of copyright protection for a specific song is not always so cut-and-dry. The validity of copyright for artistic work can be verified for decades.

A Song’s Copyright Protection Period Is Tied To The Date It Was First Recorded

  • Songs written on or after January 1, 1978, have their author’s rights protected for 70 years after their passing. The term ends 70 years after the death of the last individual author, or in cases where there are three or more authors, whenever the term would otherwise have ended. The term of protection for ‘works made for hire’ is shorter than 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation
  • (‘Any work explicitly commissioned or requested to be used as a contribution to a collective production’ or ‘any composition created by an employee while performing services for the employer” [or] as part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work” is considered a ‘work made for hire.’
  • To be considered a work made for hire, the parties must agree to that fact in a written instrument that both parties sign.’ The client, rather than the employee, is considered the ‘author’ and owner of the copyright in the case of a ‘work made for hire.’
  • Generally speaking, songs written before 1 January 1978, but published or registered after that date will have the same copyright term as works written after that date (as long as the term of such copyright does not end earlier than 31 December 2002, and as long as the term does not end earlier than 31 December 2047, for works published on or after that date)
  • Generally, songs written and published or registered before 1 January 1978, enjoy copyright license protection for 75 years from the date of publication or registration date if the work was written in its unpublished form. The term of protection for such pre-1978 copyrights still in effect as of 27, October 1998, was extended by 20 years, bringing the total to 95 years.

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Many people use the song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ to illustrate how long copyright protection can last. Happy Birthday to You familiar tune was first heard in 1893, and the song was copyrighted in 1935. 

The company that claims ownership of the song’s copyright today says it will remain in effect until 2030 and currently earns close to $2 million annually from licensing fees. Whether or not this is true is an example of the dangers of assuming that something ancient and very commonly used is in the public domain, even if its integrity is in question. 

What the Copyright Law Says About Remaking Classic Songs

Some of our older songs have been remade recently, and the legal implications of this (under IPR Law) may surprise you. Many of us wonder if the same will be said about the many new releases that sound like the old classic hits that inspired them but with a completely different approach. 

For older generations who have heard the modified songs, whether or not to alter well-known classical pieces to fit a new, more upbeat rhythm raises legal concerns. To be clear, Copyright Law does not protect any Old songs. Copyright can be defined as the exclusive legal right to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform, or otherwise use an author’s work. 

In the Indian context, this law protects not the idea but the expression of such idea conferring on works spanning the performing arts, literature, music, art, cinema, and sound recordings. Finding out who the original copyright holder was, how long they’ve had it, and whether or not they were assigned. 

It is essential for anyone interested in the legal implications of remaking old songs. When an author dies, their copyright expires, but their work remains protected for another 60 years.

In the case of two or more authors, the Song Copyrighted period begins the year after the first author’s death and continues until the year in which the last author dies. In addition, ‘Works made for Hire’ are protected under law for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever comes first. 

As the Copyright Act makes clear, an employee’s “work made for hire” performed during employment gives the employer a claim to the employee’s intellectual property if the employer is a party to the agreement.

To illustrate how the above ideas can be put into practice, consider the following scenario: a man named X has the copyright to a recording released on 18 September 1970. Sadly, he passed away on  6 June 1990. Copyright protection for his audio recording will remain effective until  1 January 2051. 

If notice is given to the original copyright owner of the intention to make a remix and a royalty payment fixed by the Copyright Board is made before the actual work enters the public domain, then the remix may be allowed. 

This provision is found in Section 52(1)(j) of the Copyright Act Public Performance. The offer is entirely at the discretion of the original owner. If the request is not accepted, the person seeking to remix the sound recording will be held liable for infringing the original owner’s rights and will not be entitled to any protection under this section.

Do You Allow the Arrangement of Songs?

Until a song is declared PD, only the Song’s Copyrighted owner has the legal right to modify it. The fact that you have issues with the song’s structure or theology doesn’t give you the right to alter it without the copyright owner’s permission.

After a song has been declared PD, only then can it be freely arranged, translated, and otherwise modified? The person who made substantial changes to the PD song may be able to claim new copyright in the resulting work. 

Always ensure that the lyrics and music are not an existing adaptation/arrangement of a PD song for which new copyright exists before attempting to adapt a PD song.


There is a lot of contemplation of whether old songs are still copyrighted. To get full information about the same, you can reach out to the experts at Vakilsearch, who can provide you with all the help needed.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Are old songs copyright free?

Old songs are still under copyright protection. Copyright laws vary by country, but generally, a song is protected for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years. Therefore, it's essential to verify the copyright status before using an old song.

Can you use a 1970s song copyright?

It depends on the copyright status of the song. While some 1970s songs may be in the public domain due to expired copyrights, many are still protected. To use a 1970s song, you need to obtain proper permissions or ensure it's in the public domain.

How do you check if an old song is copyrighted?

To check the copyright status of an old song, research the date of creation and the copyright laws in the relevant jurisdiction. You can also search copyright databases, consult legal experts, or contact performing rights organizations for assistance in determining the song's copyright status.

Can you use a song after 10 years?

The ability to use a song after 10 years depends on its copyright status. If the song is still under copyright protection, you need permission from the copyright holder to use it. However, if the song is in the public domain, you can use it freely without permission.

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