Who Owns Folk Songs?

Originally posted August 23, 2015

Folks working with traditional music often run into fake copyright notices on the sheet music they buy. One particular publisher often gets credit and even publishing royalties for recordings of songs that were written long before that company existed, only because they affixed a copyright notice to their sheet music without bothering to note that the only thing they “owned” was the typesetting.

On the other extreme some legitimate composers have been “stiffed” by people who assumed that well-known songs are – or should be – in the public domain. Even stranger, songs that were in the public domain can fall under copyright under certain conditions.

To protect the vast resource that is our musical heritage, it behooves every musician to know the difference and to treat all the materials we use appropriately. All that is a very long introduction to a plug for one of our articles which is only a few months old, but has already gotten a great deal of interest.



About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.


  1. Do you know if I can use childrens songs in an instructional video series?
    Who owns the copyright for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” etc.

  2. Thanks for getting in touch. Any song you can trace back before 1923 is in public domain. Mozart wrote Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, so you’re safe there.

    If you are wondering about a specific song, try seeing if Wikipedia has anything on it.

    A site that lists children’s songs that they THINK are in public domain is here:
    http://www.pdinfo.com/pd-music-genres/p … -songs.php

    They list a lot of song titles/first lines that are either rare versions or outright wrong, so it’s not like a great deal of scholarship has gone into it, but it might get you started.

    For myself, I have some songbooks that include children’s songs, too, that I can look songs up in and see if there is any claim of copyright.

    You can’t do that with anything published by Mel Bay, because they claim a copyright on every song they print, even ancient songs.

    Best of luck, please let me know if I can help with anything specific,


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