Relying on a public domain requires a very good understanding of copyright laws. Copyright laws vary by country, so you need to correctly identify the law(s) that applies to the music. Depending on when the copyrights were created an older law's provisions may apply. Recordings have two copyrights, (1) the musical composition and (2) the recording created by an artist.
To use your example, Tommy Dorsy is one of many artists who recorded the song, but he did not write the song. By checking ASCAP's ACE title search, Ruth Lowe is the composer of the song.
It may be that the recording is in the public domain for Tommy Dorsy, depending on where and when it is made. In the U.S., a copyright from that period will still be in force if the copyright was timely registered and renewed. Many recordings were not at the time. But a recording that performs a copyright protected song still can't be used in a film without a synch license from the composer's publishing company. If both recording and song are protected a master use from the artist or label and a synch license for the song are needed.
If you want to read a cautionary tale of using what the music director or producer "thinks is in the public domain" read the copyright story behand the animated film Sita Sings the Blues, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sita_Sings_the_Blues#Copyright_problems. Annette Hanshaw devised a unique solution to her copyright blues, see here:http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/license.html.
You may be able to get a volunteer lawyer for the arts to assist you in your quest. In Baltimore we have Maryland (Volunteer) Layers for the Arts, www.mdartslaw.org, check out the articles in the livbrary.
From: Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Peter Charuza
Sent: Saturday, August 13, 2011 2:51 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: [ARSCLIST] Location of Copyright Information
I know from the outset this topic is tread on thin ice and seems to be constantly changing.
I'm currently looking to confirm if certain a certain big band instrumental has been put in the public domain so that I may use it in a film I'm producing. If anyone has gone through a similar experience what is the best bet to get confirmation on copyright status? I know the song was recorded in 1948, rather late so it makes me a bit nervous. It's not a big name band, but what is the out look for this music do ya think?
For instance is something like Tommy Dorsey's I'll Never Smile Again, been taken and wrapped up in the Record Label's seemingly perpetual copyright of good sell-able classics?
Most people I speak with feel its not worth using known probable public domain music, they prefer original compositions or modern indie music. My feelings reside that its a large resource of beautiful recordings that shouldn't be tread on. How can I tap into it, with out ending up in the legal gutter?