Wikilegal/Copyright Status Of Images Hosted On US Government Websites
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When determining the copyright status of images that come from U.S. government websites, there are a number of factors to consider. Simply because an image appears on a government website does not mean that the U.S. government created that image, and the distinction between images used by the U.S. government and those created by the U.S. government has implications for the copyright status of the images in question.
In general, images created by U.S. governmental agencies are not claimed to be covered by copyright because federal law removes copyright protection from works of the U.S. government. This restriction extends to any work “prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties.”
While works produced by the U.S. government are not entitled to copyright protections, one U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that if the government contracts with a third party to create a work, and the work as commissioned is not related to official duties of any government employee, the work will enjoy copyright protection. In these cases, the third party would hold the copyright, but the contract commissioning the work might transfer the copyright to the U.S. government. Because of this, it is possible for works created by or in conjunction with third parties to enjoy copyright protection, but whether the work does, and who holds the copyright, will depend on the specific circumstances of the work. The government agency’s contract with the third party may even explicitly remove copyright protection, for example, so the particular circumstances of any given image will have to be investigated.
In addition, the removal of copyright protection from works of the U.S. government does not mean that the government cannot hold copyrights or the rights to use a copyrighted work. Practically, this means that an image hosted on a government website, if taken or created by a third party, may still be copyrighted, with the copyright simply transferred to the government. The government could also have licensed the rights to display and distribute the image from the original copyright holder.
Unfortunately, these possibilities mean that there is no categorical way to determine the copyright status of images hosted on government websites. Each image will have to be analyzed to determine if the government created it, and if not, who holds the copyright. For images where the government holds the copyright or has a license, they could make the image available with or without restrictions, and determining if this is the case will require looking at the general policies of particular agencies as well as their statements about any given image.
- 17 U.S.C. § 105
- 17 U.S.C. § 101
- See Schnapper v. Foley, 667 F.2d 102 (D.C. Cir. 1981)
- See e.g., http://www.hubblesite.org/about_us/copyright.php, where an organization creating images for NASA under contract disclaims any copyright.
- See 17 U.S.C. § 105 (“The United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.”)