How long do music copyrights last? (Old ragtime tunes)

Recently I retrieved my family’s old piano from storage, and have been wanting to get back into Ragtime playing again. So, shouldn’t the older pieces be in the public domain? IIRC an original copyright in those days ran for 50 years, then could be renewed once. Scott Joplin’s widow Lottie, in 1948, renewed the copyright on Maple Leaf Rag, since it was due to expire in another year, but I’d think that would have run out by now.

I can see how if a modern collection is published, there would be copyright in the introductory materials and performance notes, but wouldn’t the actual music be in the public domain? I’m curious because I thought some of the older material, from 1905 and before, should now be public property and hence downloadable for free.

How do copyrights work in this regard?

From 1909 to 1977, copyright was for 28 years, which could be renewed for another 28 years. Material that was still under copyright when they changed the law in 1977 had the rights extended, and then extended again, and in most cases is still under copyright.

I don’t know what the system was like beofre 1909, but I believe it was even harder to keep things copyrighted.

So anything copyrighted before 1922 should be PD. Anything copyrighted before 1949 might have gone in to the PD if the rights were not renewed. Anything copyrighted or renewed after 1949 is probably still copyrighted.

Of course, it’s a little trickier with music. That’s because while a piece of music can be copyrighted, so can a performance – separately. Therefore, while Maple Leaf Rag is PD, any given performance of it may be copyrighted by the performer, and that’s why it may be hard to find performed versions on the 'Net.


Project Gutenberg says that anything published before 1923 is in the public domain in the U.S. As a starting point for you, the University of Colorado has a Digitized Ragtime Sheetmusic Archive. Also the Mutopia Project has 13 Scott Joplin pieces and 2 by Tom Turpin.

Have fun and good luck on getting back into the piano!

Note the above responses apply to US law. From my little understanding, outside the US laws vary a lot. Even Project Gutenberg (US based) makes no comments about laws outside the US.

Thus, if you are outside the US, it is possible something in public domain in the US is still under copyright where you live. And, things copyrighted in the US may be public domain where you live. For example, according to that link in Sudan copyright is life +25 years. Thus there if the author died more than 25 years ago the work is PD. And that says that per the Berne Convention copyright is life + 50 years. Looks like lots of countries follow the Berne Convention. As such in those countries anything is PD if the author died before 1955.

It’s a bit more complicated than that. The U.S. currently follows the same life + 70 rule as the European Union. But that doesn’t mean that the status of works published in the past conforms to life + 70. And I would assume that the status of a 1909 work in the other countries mention on that page also vary from country to country depending on how they wrote their laws for existing works of varying dates.

This page on public domain dates gives a chart for how older works should be treated in the U.S. Technically, the dates apply only to printed works; there are some odd exceptions for other types of copyrighted material, as Cliffy noted.

If legitimate sites are offering downloads, then I assume they are in the public domain.

But I’m not sure from the OP what SoP is looking for. Actual recordings of music? Sheet music? Piano rolls? Each of these may have different rules associated with them.

Oh, how I’d love to hear you play!

Copyrights aside, I hope you have a wonderful time with your piano and Joplin’s Rags!!

Thanks for the links. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the Turpin rag that I wanted, but I did see the simplified arrangement of Harlem Rag that I’ve read about but never seen. Of course I used to play the other, non-simplified, version, and it is to the credit of those who worked to bring that music back into print in the 1970s conscientiously eschewed “EZ” reworkings.

You should have heard me back in my college days. I could bat out about 50 different pieces, about half Joplin and the other half by various others. Now it’s pretty much gone; I play guitar too and was concentrating on that. Truthfully, I might not have gone for the piano if it weren’t for the fact that my father is anxious to clear out the storage facility and give it up.

It’s even a little more complicated than that. Life of the author + 70 years applies only if the original copyright was taken out in the author’s name, and not a corporate copyright. (For example, the novel The Great Gatsby was copyrighted by the publisher, not by F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

Even then, the U.S. copyright will last for life of the author + 70 years, or 95 years, whichever is shorter.

More on duration of copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office.

What does copyright have to do with your wanting to play again? Are you planning on making recordings and publishing them?

Just to repeat what others have said, anything originally published in the U.S. before 1923 is now out of copyright and in the public domain. That of include all of Scott Joplin’s music published in his lifetime.

I was looking for a quick easy way of getting a couple of Tom Turpin rags. I’m willing to pay for the book I know they’re included in, but if could download them that would be quicker. I still have my Joplin book (and, probably, quite enough to keep me busy with just that).