Music is in the public domain if: (1) all rights to the music have expired; (2) the music has been placed in the public domain by the author and/or composer; or (3) if there was never any copyright attached to the music by author, composer, arranger, performer or publisher.
When does copyrighted music become public domain? Music published prior to 1/1/1923 is in the public domain. There are several dates when music published after 1/1/1923 become public domain (see chart at www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm); but in general, current law has extended copyright terms to 95 years from publication. The effect of this law is that no new works will enter the public domain until January 1, 2019. Music compositions created before 1/1/1978, but published between then and 12/31/2002 are protected by copyright for a period of life of the creator plus 70 years or 12/31/2047, whichever is greater.
It is imperative that these provisions of the most current copyright law (Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act) be applied when determining if a hymn or song is copyrighted or in the public domain. This current law, which extends the periods of copyright protection in the 1976 Copyright Act, supersedes all previous USA copyright laws, including those of 1790, 1831, 1909, and various acts between 1962-74.
(This article is in the public domain and may be freely used and reproduced.)