January 1st each year is, among other things, Public Domain Day. This is the day, in most industrialised countries, when the copyright period expires on those works which became old enough in the past year. On Public Domain Day, those books, music scores, and artworks enter the public domain en masse. They are free for everyone to use and re-use without asking permission.

This year, Public Domain Day in the USA was notable. For only the second time in 41 years, works actually entered the public domain in the USA on that day. The last time this had happened was in 1998, and before that, 1977. These two 21-year droughts were the results of changes to US copyright law, first in 1976, and again in 1998. “The public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years”, quoted Smithsonian magazine.  Cultural advocates celebrated how the arrival of works into the public domain enriches culture generally in the USA. But they focussed more on literature. I am interested in music scores.

The Keyboard Philharmonic project transcribes public domain music scores of classical and operatic works, into a revisable, reusable, sharable digital form, and makes them freely available. Music scores, rather than prose and poetry, are at the centre. The project is not limited to the US, so copyright terms worldwide matter. The world has a variety of rules about when works enter the public domain. Still, some of the works which entered the public domain in the US on 1. January, 2019, were already in the public domain according to Canadian and European rules. Thus their arrival in the public domain in the USA marks the start of their freedom worldwide. They enter the scope of the Keyboard Philharmonic project. This is worth celebrating!

These newly-free works are leaving a 95-year copyright term in the US. They were published during the year 1923, reached the 95-year mark during 2018, and their copyright extended to the end of that year. So, the search is on for musical scores which were published during 1923. For each such score, the challenge is, to confirm that it has entered the public domain in the US, to check that is also in the public domain in Canada and Europe (as exemplars of other major worldwide copyright regimes), and if so, to add it to our work list.

The redoubtable Internet Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) / Petrucci Music Library has always been an important source of scanned public domain music scores. They also do a lot of work to catalogue their collections, including by year of publication. They have a category page, Category:Works first published in 1923. Listed there are links to 371 musical work pages, most (all?) with one or more scores.  There is the Piano Trio, Op.120, by Gabriel Fauré. There is the Wind Quintet, Op.43, by Carl Nielsen. There is the Fantasia fugata, Op.87, by Amy Marcy Beach. There are also works like 6 Songs, Op.86, by Jean Sibelius: public domain in the US and Canada, but still under copyright in the EU — because 70 years has not elapsed since the composer’s death in 1957.

There is research to do, to check the works on this list and see in what order the Keyboard Philharmonic project should attempt to transcribe them. But a list like this is a great place to start looking. And, it is a great place to start celebrating the resumption of normal expiration of copyright terms in the USA.

N.B. Copyright law is fiendishly complex. If you want to know whether or not a work is under copyright in your jurisdiction, you must do your own research, consult real legal experts, and make your own judgement. Do not rely on this page as an authority on whether a work is under copyright for you.