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Folkloric Music and Public Domain

Actualizado: 21 de oct de 2019




As a music supervisor for an independent film in Mexico, they asked me to seek licenses for the songs "House of the Rising Sun" and "I Feel Like a Motherless Child." I told the producers that these songs do not require licenses because they are folkloric and from the United States. They did not believe me. They told me that the SACM (Society of Authors and Composers of Mexico) had charged them for “La Cucaracha” and “Las Mañanitas”.


The term public domain refers to creative materials that are not protected under intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark and patent rights. The public owns these works, not an individual, author or artist.


"The House of the Rising Sun", also called "The Blues of the Rising Sun" is originally from New Orleans and dates back to 1800’s and WWI. The lyrics first appeared in a musical column by Robert W. Gordon called "Old Songs That Men Have Sung" in 1925. In 1933, the first recorded version was by artist Clarence Tom Ashley. This song, even dates its creation before the beginning of New Orleans in 1718.


"I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is a spiritualist song of African-American culture. Its creation dates to the era of slavery in the United States. One of the first public versions was by Fisk Jubilee Singers, around 1870’s.


This means that any cultural tradition of a community does not have a single composer or author and authorship can be attributed to the community. However, if in the movie they had wanted to use the version of "The Animals", which is the best known, they would have to pay a very good sum of money. Since, you don't have to pay royalties to the author, but to the interpreter. The payment established for the use of songs could be given to the performer of the piece in film production; in this case the actors. Folk music, not having a specific author, and without using recordings made by recognized or record artists, has use in the public domain.



According to UNESCO, folklore is defined as “all traditions based on creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group or individuals. The standards and values ​​are transmitted orally by imitation or other means. Its forms, among others, are language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, crafts, architecture and other arts. ”


La Cucaracha is a folk song from the time of the Mexican Revolution. The authorship is anonymous and native. It has a very complex history and many interpretations. Teasing Victoriano Huerta, the support of Villistas and Zapatistas, marijuana among others.

Las Mañanitas, they do have authorship. Although it is one of the most popular songs in the world, it was written by Manuel M. Ponce in 1914. The composer, musician and director died in 1948. The copyright, in many countries, lasts a lifetime. of the author plus 50 to 70 years after his death. Mexico is the only country with a duration of 100 years. All authorships created before their death was in 1928; They are in the public domain.


A Master License is a recording, which normally belongs to the record label that records it, and / or the author of that piece. Which, must be paid to be able to synchronize and have mechanical royalties. Sync licenses are those used to match images or videos.

If you want to sing Las Mañanitas in your independent movie, you do have to pay royalties to the composer or , in this case, publisher.


If you want to license La Cucaracha, you have to pay for synchronization if Mariachi around the block are the ones playing. If you interpret it yourself, an actor or third parties, and it was recorded by you, you do not have to pay for anything.


WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), is a UN body responsible for the administration of IPR’s (Intellectual Property Rights). It became an important forum for negotiation of principles by protecting traditional knowledge and intangible hereditary culture through the Intergovernmental Committee on Genetic Resources, Traditional and Folklore Knowledge (IGC).


The SACM is the editor that handles all licenses for the works of Maestro Manuel M. Ponce. There is a version of "La Cucaracha" that Ponce modified with mixed choirs. Which can be misunderstood that he was the composer of this work. SACM does not have in its digital data information about public domain and folk pieces. Understanding that SACM is governed by the same laws and clauses of WIPO should not have been charged for any type of license for the work of La Cucaracha and should not be paid for the other pieces. However, they are doing it. And that is why I am no longer that film's music supervisor.


Some popular public domain songs:


La cucaracha

La Valentina

Corrido de la toma de Zacatecas

El Corrido de Madero

Feliz Cumpleaños

That’s all right

Rockin Robin

Deck the halls

Jingle Bells

Noche de Paz

La víbora de la mar

La rueda de San Miguel

Love Me Do



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