What is free music?

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Logo for free cultural works (according to freedomdefined.org)

Free music is the attempt to transfer the principles of free software to new areas: first of all musical compositions, including lyrics, secondly music recordings, and thirdly music videos. There are two ways how to answer what free music is, namely –

a) with a clear definition based on legal issues, and
b) by naming things typical of the free software culture.


The term ‘free music’ is closely based on the GNU Free Software Definition (short: FSD) and the Debian Free Software Guidelines (short: DFSG). The initiative freedomdefined.org has generalized the concept of free software to be applied to all areas and speaks of “free cultural goods”.

Examples of free software include well known software products such as GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, Gimp, and Firefox.
Examples of free cultural goods include cultural enrichments like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap.

In this sense, free music is music that everybody has the right

  • to use for any purpose,
  • to study,
  • to improve, and
  • to pass around.


Under the copyright laws, the author of a work owns the “exclusive rights” to a work. Basicly, this means that only he is allowed to copy, distribute, perform and change the work. This effectively makes the music non-free for other people. However, there are two ways in which music can still become free:

a) by not being “protected” anymore, or
b) if the copyright holder gives permission to everybody.

Public Domain

Read the Wikipedia article on Public Domain

Public Domain means that a work is not ‘protected’ by copyright. This is generally the case, if the author of the work has died more than 70 years ago (under Mexican law it's even 100 years!).

Also, governmental institutions of some states do not claim copyright to works created in that facility.

Thirdly, individuals might want to release their rights and dedicate their work to the Public Domain. The legal validity of such dedication has been questioned however, i.e. it is not clear if such a dedication would hold up in court, in any place of the world. Therefore it might be a good idea to combine such dedication with a short public license as a fallback. Creative Commons Zero is a protocol that combines both.

In this wiki, currently the following templates are defined to mark works:

  • {{PD-old}} – copyright expired
  • {{CC0}} – Creative Commons Zero (PD dedication + fallback license)

Public License

Another approach is to keep the copyright, and to allow everybody to use the work in all necessary ways. Such permission is called a ‘license’, and as it is offered to everybody, this particular kind of license is called a ‘public license’. Such licenses can set up requirements (similar to a payment in a regular license contract), so for instance, individuals might have to give proper attribution in order to exercise the rights.

Unfortunately, derivative works are not free by default. Thus a copyleft license requires individuals to free their derived works, in case they want to distribute them.

In this wiki, currently the following templates are defined to mark works:

  • {{CC-BY}} – Creative Commons Attribution
  • {{CC-BY-SA}} – Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike (a copyleft license)
  • {{LFFI-N}} – Lizenz für freie Inhalte im Sinne von Neppstar


A piece of music is not free music, if the license does not allow changes to the work, because by definition, everybody is allowed to improve free music and to change it for his needs.

Music is also not free, if its license forbids commercial use, as such a restriction would prevent the music from being used for any purpose. A common misunderstanding is that the ‘free’ in ‘free music’ means ‘gratis’, just like in free beer. That's not quite right. For example, copies of free music can be sold. But contrary to non-free music, everybody can sell copies of free music – or give them away for free. This keeps the price low, if there is a price at all.

If a license only partially fulfills all the requirements, works under it are called “semi-free music”.

If a piece of music is neither in the Public Domain nor under a free or semi-free music license, it is completely non-free.

Attention must be given to make sure that all the songs on this wiki get proper licensing information attached to them. It should become clear to other users, why this particular work is free – under what license it is – or (in case of PD-old) which year the author died. Pieces with no such indication and pieces under Creative Commons Non-Commercial (NC) or No-derivative (ND) or other semi-free or non-free licenses will be deleted.

Free software culture

A second way to describe free music – apart from the legal approach – is to take into consideration in how far the cultural aspects of Free Software can be transferred into the field of music. Three things come into mind:

a) Internet based composing,
b) music clubs (that resemble Linux User Groups), and
c) prosumers (every consumer is also a producer).

Internet Projects

Today, free software is usually written in projects that are organized on the Internet. The participants are spread across the globe, they communicate via e-mail or newsgroup, and use internet based tools for their work. The processes in the projects are usually very transparent to the outside world, and the entry and exit is possible at any time without obligation.

Similarly, free music could also be composed, played, recorded and edited online. However, due to the diversity of music, it would be necessary that each of the participants on a particular project agree on the same technology (eg tracker) and the gross stylistic direction (eg, chip sound).

Prosumers Groups

Analogous to Linux User Groups, there could be regional groups, in which people can meet each other to produce and consume the free music, or just be interested in the subject.

In such groups, music could be heard, or played live. Bands could spontaneously form just for an evening. Copies of CDs could be made ​​or distributed there; current events in the free music scene could be discussed, as well as theoretical aspects of free music. Furthermore, events such as concerts or discos could be organized. Even radio stations for free music would be possible.

Using free music is not just listenig to it – the focus is on making music!


Software is primarily a useful tool, while music is a form of art. It is impossible to replace one piece of music with a ‘compatible clone’. It might be even difficult to do a ‘clean room implementation’ in order to work around non-free parts. This has several implications.