Government Documents, Copyright, and Public Domain

In this Fair Use/Fair Dealing Week post, one of a series of posts from UA Libraries and UA campus community bloggers, Government Documents Librarian Dr. Kevin Walker discusses copyright, public domain, and fair use as they pertain to United States federal government publications.

For more information about fair use and fair dealing, visit the Fair Use Week website or search the hashtag #FairUseWeek2016.

""The University of Alabama is one of 52 Regional Depositories for Federal Documents, which falls under the oversight of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) administered by the Government Publishing Office (GPO). A majority of US government documents have been produced by an officer or employee of the US government. This makes them government works, as defined by 17 U.S.C. § 101 (Title 17, Section 101, United States Code). Additionally, 17 U.S.C. § 105 dictates that copyright protection is not available to such documents. In other words, US government documents fall into the realm of public domain, and therefore can be reprinted or utilized without need for permission from a copyright holder—because there is no copyright holder. This is due to the fact that government documents are produced with public funding (e.g., taxes). In simplistic terms, these works belong to the taxpayers and cannot be owned by any one person.

Here it is worth note that occasionally copyrighted works are reproduced, with permission from the author(s), within US government documents. In such cases the copyright remains enforceable for that portion of any government document, unless said copyright has expired or the intended use falls under the protection of the legal doctrine of fair use. It should be stressed, however, that not all “educational purposes” fall within the realm of fair use. To help educators and students alike, the US Copyright Office has produced this helpful information regarding fair use in the education setting: “Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians.” For additional information about copyright, public domain, and fair use, visit the US Copyright OfficeF.

For more information about the University of Alabama Depository for Federal Documents visit the Government Information page on the UA Libraries’ website.

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