Classical music itself, by virtue of being old, is mostly public domain, but recordings of performances are usually under copyright, and not many are available for use in free culture works. An emerging new resource, aiming to resolve this problem is MusOpen -- a repository of public domain recordings of public domain music, available in Ogg Vorbis and FLAC formats.
You might think that, for a free-licensed film, using classical music is both obvious and easy. But unfortunately, this isn't all that true. It's true that classical music compositions are almost all in the public domain. However, in order to use them legally in a film, you need a license on the particular recording of that music that you want to use.
Under copyright rules, Wagner's descendants have no control over uses of the "Ride of the Valkyries," but the Berlin Philharmonic will if they perform it. There are usually at least two copyrights on a piece of recorded music -- one for the composition (including arrangements) and one for the recorded performance. Both must be clear for you to use the work.
Either can be a problem: I may be perfectly willing to share my recording of a classic Beatles song, but you can bet you'll be hearing from the owners of the original composition if you try to use it in your movie. Likewise, a classic lullaby may be free to sing, but if you want to use Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of it, you'll need their permission as well.
Under copyright rules, Wagner's descendants have no control over uses of the "Ride of the Valkyries," but the Berlin Philharmonic will if they perform it
Particularly with the modern, retro-actively extended copyright terms, most classical music recordings fall into the latter category. Even performances recorded back in the heyday of early radio are often still covered by performance copyrights.
This is particularly challenging for the famous orchestral classical pieces that everyone recognizes: Beethoven's 5th Symphony or Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," for example. Unlike electronica which can be cobbled together by a single artist with a good synth, or rock music which can be recorded with a couple of friends in a garage, good recordings of orchestral classical music require the cooperation of dozens of people, including musicians and sound recordists. Orchestral concerts and recording sessions are expensive affairs.
Orchestral concerts and recording sessions are expensive affairs
There are a few fortunate exemptions. For example, when works are created by US government employees in the course of their professional duties, those works fall directly into the public domain without ever becoming copyrighted. That's why everyone is free to use so much of that gorgeous NASA space imagery that you'll find plastered all over the web (if you've somehow missed out on this, let me recommend the JPL Photojournal as a good starting point).
This includes the military, and more to the point, the various US Armed Forces bands: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard (the five forces which make up the five sides of the Pentagon, for those who are not familiar with the US military). All of these forces maintain bands with very talented performers, and their concerts are often on part with the big-city philharmonic orchestras. They also have a fun tendency to play the really recognizable up-beat works that are probably in the most demand for mood music.
When works are created by US government employees in the course of their professional duties, those works fall directly into the public domain without ever becoming copyrighted
Recently, I found a new site which aims to collect all of these public domain classical performances, called MusOpen.org. They already have a fairly extensive catalog, partly due to collecting these government-sponsored recordings. They also have a lot of piano and chamber music pieces which obviously require less money and effort to organize.
However, the most exciting thing is not the old music they are collecting, but the new music they are commissioning. After their successes with piano pieces, like the complete Beethoven Sonatas, they started a Kickstarter Campaign (now over, although you can still donate. Although this was admittedly a second attempt, it succeeded magnificently, with over six times the money committed as was requested.
This money will go to:
... hire an internationally renowned orchestra to record and release the rights to: the Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky symphonies. We have price quotes from several orchestras and are ready to hire one, pending the funds.
I thought it was quite remarkable to see this goal so amply supported. It's too early to see the results of this new funding (the recordings will probably be made sometime this Summer), but it's a very exciting prospect. It also shows that when there is a clear goal to be achieved, people can and will contribute to make free public domain recordings available.
It also shows that when there is a clear goal to be achieved, people can and will contribute to make free public domain recordings available
In the meantime, of course, there is a substantial body of works already in the collection. I personally very much enjoyed the US Army Strings' recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" as well as the Skidmore College Orchestra's performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition". Although they unfortunately didn't record the whole suite, the US Air Force Band's performance of "Mars" from Gustav Holst's "The Planets" suite was also very good.
In general, the recordings at MusOpen are of quite high quality. My previous best free-licensed classical music source was the Pandora Records collection, which was released under the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Open Audio License (OAL), which was later "upgraded" to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. However, although still useful, many of those recordings were rather poor, with limited dynamic range and tape hiss problems (probably adequate for recording on vinyl when Pandora was in the record business, but these things are noticeable on high-fidelity digital playback systems).
There are two grades of membership at MusOpen: "Free" which grants access to Ogg Vorbis compressed tracks with a fixed download limit per day, and "Pro" which charges $4 per month for unlimited access to FLAC losslessly compressed audio.
So far, I've just been using a free account to explore the collection. I will most likely get a "Pro" account at some point in order to download tracks for use in production -- and of course to contribute to this very worthwhile project.
They also accept direct donations. So if, like me, you're a little disappointed to have missed the big action on the Kickstarter campaign, you do at least have the option to contribute to additional performance commissions.
This work may be distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, version 3.0, with attribution to "Terry Hancock, first published in Free Software Magazine". Illustrations and modifications to illustrations are under the same license and attribution, except as noted in their captions (all images in this article are CC By-SA 3.0 compatible).