Answered By: Elyse Wolf
Last Updated: Feb 15, 2022     Views: 28

You may see something that was produced by a government and wonder whether or not you can use it for your own purposes without asking permission. For example, you may see a photograph, an infographic, a report, or other content on a .gov website and you would like to copy it and reuse it somehow.

Are you legally allowed to do that? The answer can vary based on the level of government (municipal, state, federal), the creator of the material, and other factors.

The United States federal government authors millions of documents each year. Those documents are dedicated to the public domain, and this is part of U.S. copyright law.

17 U.S.C. § 105 This link opens in a new window:

Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.

17 U.S.C. § 101 This link opens in a new window states:

A "work of the United States Government" is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties.

It’s important to note that the government also relies on many outside contractors, freelancers, and others to create works on behalf of the government. In those situations, copyright may remain with the individual, corporation, or other group that created the work.

State and local governments, however, can claim copyright ownership in the works they produce. This means that unfettered access to items such as local tax maps, municipal planning documents, and strategic reports may be restricted by copyright. State copyrights laws vary widely, This link opens in a new window this interactive map This link opens in a new window can show you the copyright status for government documents for individual states.

Internationally, copyright laws vary from country to country and many countries claim copyright protection for the works that they produce. The SNHU Research Guide on Copyright has a page on international copyright law that may have some helpful resources on this topic.

Additional Information

The publications of international agencies such as the United Nations This link opens in a new window may also only be available under copyright.

Entities such as the Federal Reserve Bank This link opens in a new window are not part of the government and claim copyright in their works.

The logos, emblems, shields and other identifiers for federal government agencies may be protected under U.S. Trademark Law This link opens in a new window.

 

References

Courtney, Kyle (2018). The state copyright conundrum. College and Research Library News. 79(10). https://crln.acrl.org/index.php/crlnews/article/view/17438/19245 This link opens in a new window

Copyright at Harvard University. State Copyright Resource Center.  https://copyright.lib.harvard.edu/states/ This link opens in a new window

Sinclair, Gwen. (2018) LibGuide: Are government documents copyrighted? https://govtinfo.libanswers.com/faq/224247 This link opens in a new window

USAGov. (2021) U.S. Government Works: Copyright Exceptions for U.S. Government Works https://www.usa.gov/government-works This link opens in a new window

Contact

For more information, please contact Ellen Phillips, e.phillips@snhu.edu Director, Open Educational Resources and Intellectual Property | Office of Knowledge Management and Information Science.

Disclaimer

SNHU has provided the resources on this page and throughout similar guides to help individuals learn more about copyright laws and issues. However, SNHU cannot be responsible for the accuracy or completeness of third-party links. This guide is intended to be educational in nature and is not meant to constitute legal advice. Avoiding copyright infringement is the responsibility of the individual user.

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