This list of places where you can find public domain recordings includes resources that offer spoken word recordings and music recordings. Some resources offer both — I’ve listed those sites in the Music section.
If you know of any great places to get public domain recordings, please share them!
What's there: Large collection of recordings, ranging from “alternative news programming, to Grateful Dead concerts, to Old Time Radio shows, to book and poetry recordings, to original music contributed by users.” (That quote is straight from the site.) There’s a ton here. Really.
Using what you find: Not everything you find here will be in the public domain, but some of it is. (Here’s a chilling example: the Jonestown Death Tape (FBI No. Q 042.) It’s up to you to read the information for the work you’re interested in. For example, you may share recordings from the Grateful Dead collection, but you may not use them commercially (which, by the way, includes offering them on websites with advertising).
Other works are licensed under Creative Commons licenses (for example, the Open Source Audio collection) — pay attention to the particular terms of whatever license the work’s creator selected. (For general info on the various “flavors” of Creative Commons licenses, see here.)
What's there: 24 collections in the Library of Congress’ American Memory include sound recordings. There’s a mix of spoken word and music recordings — you can hear person-on-the-street interviews made just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as recations to the September 11 attacks. What else? The stories of former slaves ... Thomas Edison’s sound recordings ... Northern California folk music from the 1930s ... and more. Check the list.
Using what you find: Many of the sound recordings in these collections don’t have copyright restrictions on them, but some certainly do. Each collection has a “Copyright and Other Restrictions” page that gives rights information specific to it. So read it. Oh, and if you’re planning to use a recorded interview commercially, be aware of the rights of privacy and publicity.
What's there: Mathematical proofs set to music. Yes, you read that right.
Using what you find: All the music on this page, with one exception (which is named), has been placed in the public domain. You may use it any way you wish, for any purpose.
What's there: Community driven music repository. MP3 recordings of public domain music. As the site puts it: “This project exists so that educational institutions and the general public can have free, unlimited access to all kinds of music that have expired copyrights.” Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and early 20th century works.
Using what you find: The recordings on this site have been placed in the public domain, so there are no restrictions on what you may do with them. The site’s operators ask that you don’t directly sell the recordings for profit, though, and that you give credit to Musopen for any material that you use. Now, technically, you don’t have to do either of those things ... but I’ll leave that to your conscience.
What's there: Downloadabe MP3s. Various works and artists, from Sophie Tucker to the US Marine Band to Giusseppe Verdi.
Using what you find: Many sound recordings here are in the US public domain, but not all. The bibliographic record for each work includes its copyright status, so take a look. If the work is copyrighted, a license will apply ... so always check the work’s Readme file. If you don’t, well, it’ll be your own damn fault if you get into trouble.
What's there: List of full length copyleft/public domain songs available on Wikipedia or the Commons (alphabetically sorted by composer). Classical works mostly, from what I can see. Ogg vorbis format.
Looking for a free player that supports ogg files? Check out Zinf.
Using what you find: Not all of these recordings are in the public domain. The ones that aren’t are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licenses, or the (old) EFF Open Audio License 1.0. Basically, you may copy, redistribute, perform or modify the music, but you must give credit to the original performer and you may not change the license terms. (For general info on Creative Commons licenses, see here.)
What's there: Database of speeches by George W. Bush (looks like they stopped adding to it in 2004). Every phrase from each of the speeches is its own individual audio file. According to the site, “the filename is, in most cases, the exact text content of the sample.” The “indivual files” links allow you to download a zip file containing the individual phrases. The “linear recording” links are MP3s of the entire speech. You may download or stream them.
Using what you find: Official speeches by the president are in the public domain. Create your own works with these samples. Like Fuzzy Math by The Bots. Or not like Fuzzy Math, depending on how you feel about Dubya. Heh.
What's there: Audiobooks in MP3 or ogg vorbis formats. The collection includes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic works. LibriVox takes texts already in the public domain in the US, asks volunteers to make audio recordings of that text, and then releases the resulting audio back into the public domain. The texts are (mostly) from Project Gutenberg.
Using what you find: All recordings, and all book summaries, CD cover art, and any other material are in the public domain in the US. You may use them however you want. It would be nice, though, if you gave credit.
What's there: Recordings of oral arguments before the US Supreme Court. The collection covers all audio from the 1990 Term through the end of the 2004 Term. Before 1990, the audio collection is selective. The goal is to have a complete archive of all Court audio from October 1955 to the present.
Using what you find: You might think audio recordings of arguments before the Supreme Court would be in the public domain, and you’d be right. The audio itself is not protected by copyright, but The Oyez Project claims a limited copyright in these recordings.
Why? I’ll let them tell you. Because “the audio was extracted from reel-to-reel tapes and engineered to correct for defects in the recording process such as slow recording or fast recording speed problems. Arguments and opinions can extend across tapes, requiring editorial effort to assemble them as stand-alone tracks.”
The recordings are licensed under a Creative Commons license that allows you to copy, adapt, distibute, and transmit these works as long as you give the Oyez Project credit and you don’t use the works for commercial purposes. Also, if you incorporate these works into your own work, you must distribute your work under the same license terms
So, bottom line: if you want unrestricted use of Supreme Court audio recordings, get copies from the National Archives. (The sound quality won’t be as good, though.)
What's there: Human-read audio books in a number of languages. (Gutenberg also offers computer-generated audio books. Most of the ones I’ve seen are copyrighted, though.) Classics like Aesop's Fables and works by the likes of Jane Austen, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll. Formats: Ogg Vorbis, Apple iTunes Audiobook, MP3 Audio, and Speex Audio.
Using what you find: The bibliographic record for each book will include its copyright status. If the work isn’t copyrighted in the US, the record will say so. If the work is copyrighted, you may still download the file but your use may be (most likely will be!) limited. In that case check the license inside the book.
What's there: Audio recordings of, you guessed it, the World English Bible. Not all the books have been recorded, though. MP3 and ogg vorbis formats.
Using what you find: The recordings are in the public domain. Do with them what you will.