Public Domain and Government Publications

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  • I *think* I know the answer to this one, but I wanted to get some other opinions just in case.

    I recently received a government publication through interlibrary loan from another library (requested by one of my patrons). It was published by the US department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1968. I do not see any copyright notice on the publication.

    With that in mind, I feel fairly* confident that it is in the public domain. So can I copy the item in it's entirety and add it to my library's collection without giving notice to the authors, etc?



    * I say "fairly" because I know that if a private contractor (hired by the US govt) created the work and retained copyright, then this item is not in the public domain. However, since there is no copyright notice (required on US publications during the years 1923-1977), I believe that the item must not have been created by a private contractor. Again, I could be wrong -- but that was my reasoning.
  • Here is a not-a-lawyer response, without knowing the specific of the work in question.

    Within the United States, copyright protection is not provided for U.S. Government works under U.S. Copyright Law. What exactly qualifies as a U.S. Government work can be subject to debate. However, it is clear that if the document was published by a U.S. federal agency and written by a government employee as part of his or her official job duties, the work is in the public domain.

    Contractors, grantees and certain categories of people who work with the government are not considered government employees for purposes of copyright. Also not all government publications and government records are government works

    Also, note that US government works are not necessarily in the public domain in countries outside the USA. The law of the foreign country governs ownership of foreign copyrights in U.S. Government works.

    For a great discussion of copyright and federal government works, see the web document "Frequently Asked Questions About Copyright" ( produced by CENDI, "an interagency working group of senior scientific and technical information (STI) managers from 12 U.S. federal agencies". The CENDI Copyright Working Group put together this FAQ to specifically address copyright-related questions that come up in federal scientific and technology agencies. The site links to an interesting law review article, entitled 'Copyright in Government Employee Authored Works'. The full-text of the article is provided online as a PDF document (because the author -- John O. Tresansky -- prepared the article as federal employee himself!)
  • Thank you to GClement for responding! It was very helpful!

    I have some additional questions -- which is typical when talking about copyright!

    Since it is somewhat ambiguous on what may or may not be a government publication, can I make an assumption about public domain based on the fact that there is no copyright notice?

    Copyright notices were required for documents from 1923-1977. I cannot find a notice inside the publication, and it was published in 1968.

    I guess one of my questions is that if one condition (government publication) is ambiguous, but another condition (no copyright notice on a 1968 work) is not ambiguous, can I then determine it is public domain? Or maybe a better way to word the question is which factor should be the deciding factor? The fact that it is a government publication or the fact that it was published without a copyright notice?

    Thanks again!

  • Your point about the absence of a copyright notice is a good one. As you mention, until 1978 all works published in the United States had to contain a valid copyright notice to be protected by copyright. On that grounds alone, you can assume the work is in the public domain.

    CENDI ( is a cooperative of the major U.S. Government
    scientific and technical information centers.

    Copyright and Marking US Government Works:
    Why Keep the Public Guessing?

    Harding Hall
    U.S. Government Printing Office
    Washington DC

    November 2, 2006

    The CENDI Copyright Working Group is exploring the feasibility of
    establishing a symbol, tag and metadata to mark and identify government
    works (Title 17 USC Sec 105) in analog and digital formats. This is of
    immediate interest since the Federal Research Public Access Bill
    (Cronyn-Lieberman) includes a provision requiring that works by Federal
    employees be marked as being in the public domain when they are
    published. Whether implemented government-wide or on a department or
    agency basis, marking government works would benefit both government and
    citizen users in identifying what is a government work and free from
    copyright restrictions. The program is designed to go from the general
    to the specific - from policy to operations. An underlying theme is the
    role and need for standards in government digital enterprise

    The public conference will be held from 9:30am-2:30pm. A small working
    group session for US government and support contractors only follows
    from 2:45pm-4:00pm.

    WHO SHOULD ATTEND: Government Information Managers, CIOs, Librarians,
    Government IP Attorneys, Government Editors, Publishers and Web
    Managers, Public Affairs Managers


    Register by October 23, 2006

    There is no registration fee; however, you must register for entry into
    the GPO building. U.S. Government employees should bring their
    Government I.D.s. Non-U.S. Government employees must have a valid
    picture I.D. such as a Drivers License.

    The registration site also includes a preliminary program and

    BACKGROUND: Government works are defined under Title 17 USC Sec 101 as
    "prepared by an officer or employee of the United States government as
    part of that person's official duties." Government agencies on their web
    sites usually advise users that information on the site is not
    copyrighted unless otherwise stated, and that absent a notice, the
    information may be distributed or copied. Prior to joining the Berne
    Convention in 1989, it was reasonable and practical for the government
    not to give notice or mark government works. Post-Berne, this practice
    leads to confusion and uncertainty. When the work is separated from its
    originating source, you're forced to guess. Under the old law, the
    burden was on the copyright holder to give notice or else forfeit
    copyright protection. Now that a notice is optional and automatically
    "vests in original works of authorship," the burden is on users. Absent
    a copyright notice, users must assume the work is copyrighted,
    investigate its status and seek permission if their intended use is
    beyond the allowed exemptions.

    A government mark would serve as Copyright Management Information
    (CMI), defined under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as
    identifying information about a work, author, copyright owner (or not)
    as well as terms and conditions for use of the work.

    This question of marking government works is of immediate interest
    since the Federal Research Public Access Bill (Cronyn-Lieberman) has, as
    one of its provisions, the requirement that works by Federal employees
    "be marked as being public domain material when published." Whether the
    bill ever passes, agencies may choose to implement some or all of the
    provisions, following the lead of the National Institutes of Health.

    QUESTIONS: Contact Kathryn Johnson, CENDI Secretariat,

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