Copyright status of work by U.S. subnational governments

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The copyright status of works produced by the governments of states, territories, and municipalities in the United States varies. Copyright law is federal in the United States, but while federal law expressly excludes works of the U.S. federal government from copyright protection, thus making them public domain, it is silent on the status of works by state or local governments. This leaves such works with standard copyright protection unless applicable state or local law declares otherwise. Some state and local governments expressly claim copyright over some or all of their copyrightable works, while others waive copyright and declare that all government-produced documents are in the public domain. Some states' policies on the copyright of governmental works are not clearly defined. Copyright law in the U.S. places all edicts of any government, local or foreign, in the public domain. In other words, there are no copyright restrictions on any laws, court rulings, mandatory codes or regulations of any government.[1]


In the state of California the California Appeals Court (with statewide jurisdiction) in County of Santa Clara v. California First Amendment Coalition has ruled that the government may not claim copyright on public records.[2] The California Public Records Act states that agencies with custody of "public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours" [3][4]


Under Florida's Constitution and its statutes, the state and its agents are not permitted to claim copyright on its public records unless the legislature specifically permits it.[5][6][7][8] This includes a work made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any state, regional, county, district, municipal, or other unit of government and their associated committees and divisions created or established by the laws of the Government of Florida.[5] Text, communications, and images produced by the government of Florida and any county, region, district, authority, agency, or municipal officer, department, division, board, committee, bureau, commission, or other separate unit of government created or established by law are consequently in the public domain according to court interpretation in Microdecisions, Inc. v. Skinner.[8]

The bar on copyright extends to any "public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state, or persons acting on their behalf, except with respect to records exempted [specifically by statute or specifically made exempt or] confidential by the Constitution. [It] specifically includes the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government and each agency or department created thereunder; counties, municipalities, and districts; and each constitutional officer, board, and commission, or entity created pursuant to law or [the Florida] Constitution."[6]

There are various categories of works for which the legislature has specifically permitted copyright to be claimed, mostly for a few applications or development processes wherein the state derives income and while competing with private industries in the commercial realm, such as allowing the department of the lottery, the department of citrus, and some university research departments to secure copyrights for certain works that are expressly defined and narrowly limited.[9][10][11] The list of valid exemptions is culled regularly via a sunset policy to exclude items put on the list by error or via legislation passed within a recent session that does not conform to the laws. The state is attempting to streamline its exemptions and the current status of works claiming exemption must be verified as conforming to the laws before being presumed to be copyright since copyright may be claimed in error for things that remain a public record nonetheless.


Indiana's public records law does not allow restriction on public records "that requires the public to obtain a license or pay copyright royalties for obtaining the right to inspect and copy the records unless otherwise provided by applicable statute; if the contract, obligation, license, or copyright unreasonably impairs the right of the public to inspect and copy the agency's public records" [12]


The Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts informs the public that "Records created by Massachusetts government are not copyrighted and are available for public use."[13]


There are conflicting official legal opinions on correct interpretation of state law, and courts have yet to rule on how to interpret the law. A state commissioner's statement from December 1994 reads, in part, "unless clearly specified by the legislature, the public's right of access to and use of public government data cannot be curtailed by a government entity's claim of intellectual property rights in those data". The reading of that as meaning "public domain", however, is contradicted by this statement from December 1995 which comes from the Attorney General, claims to be of higher authority, and explicitly references the prior statement and clarifies that it should be read as applying to access to the data, and not the copyright of the data, and offers alternative phrasing for the above quoted portion: "The department may not assert copyright ownership to deny members of the public their right "to inspect and copy public government data at reasonable times and places" under Minn. Stat. § 13.03, subd. 3 (1994)." A key question is how to interpret this statute, which reads:[14]

Subd. 5.Copyright or patent of government data. A government entity may enforce a copyright or acquire a patent for a computer software program or components of a program created by that government entity without statutory authority. In the event that a government entity acquires a patent to a computer software program or component of a program, the data shall be treated as trade secret information pursuant to section 13.37.

New Jersey[edit]

It is the policy of the state of New Jersey that all documents originating from web sites of executive departments and non-independent agencies are "available to the public and anyone may view, copy or distribute State information found here without obligation to the State" unless the document specifically states otherwise.[15] Likewise, all records obtain from state, county, or local government entities in New Jersey via the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA), per a 2009 decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court, may be reproduced including for commercial purposes.[16]

New York[edit]

Courts have ruled that in general, works of this state are subject to copyright restrictions.

North Carolina[edit]

North Carolina statute holds that, "The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people."[17]

South Carolina[edit]

The State Library of South Carolina in a Statement of Rights, opined that, "Records, documents and information made available by the agencies of South Carolina state government or its subdivisions are the property of the people of the state of South Carolina. Therefore, the South Carolina State Library considers these items to be in the public domain according to US copyright law."[18]

Organized and Unorganized Territories[edit]

The U.S. Copyright Office does not take a position on whether "organized territories" under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Government (such as Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands[19] the District of Columbia,[20] and Puerto Rico,[21] fall under section 105; it accepts such registrations under its "rule of doubt", preserving the issue for a court to decide.[22] "Unorganized territories" (such as American Samoa and the former Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands)[23] are treated as the U.S. government and fall under § 105; their works lack copyright protection.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ § 206.01 of the Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices Such documents include "judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments, public ordinances, and similar official legal documents."
  2. ^ California County Hoarding Map Data Ordered to Pay $500,000 | Threat Level |
  3. ^ California Public Records Act, GOVT. CODE §§ 6250 - 6276.48
  4. ^ CA Codes (gov:6250-6270)
  5. ^ a b Florida Statutes §119.011(12)
  6. ^ a b Florida Constitution Article I, §24(a)
  7. ^ Florida Statutes §119.011(11)
  8. ^ a b Microdecisions, Inc. v. Skinner, 889 S.2d 871, at 9 (2004).
  9. ^ Florida Statutes §24.105(10)
  10. ^ Florida Statutes §601.101
  11. ^ Florida Statutes §1004.23
  12. ^ Indiana Code 5-14-3
  13. ^
  14. ^ 13.03, 2012 Minnesota Statutes
  15. ^ State of New Jersey. "Conditions of Use Notice" (17 July 2010). Retrieved 2 July 2013.
  16. ^ Burnett v. County of Bergen, 402 N.J.. Super 319 (2008).
  17. ^ North Carolina General Statutes § 132‑1(b)
  18. ^ South Carolina State Library "Statement of Rights"
  19. ^ Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 1102.08(a)
  20. ^ Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 206.02(c)
  21. ^ Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 206.02(d)
  22. ^ a b Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 206.02(e)
  23. ^ Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 1102.08(b)