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. Federal law expressly denies U.S. copyright protection to two types of government works: works of the U.S. federal government itself, and all edicts of any government regardless of level or whether or not foreign.[1] Other than addressing these "edicts of government", U.S. federal law does not address copyrights of U.S. state and local government.[2]

The U.S. Copyright Office gives guidance that "Works (other than edicts of government) prepared by officers or employees of any government (except the U.S. Government) including State, local, or foreign governments, are subject to registration if they are otherwise copyrightable."[3] This leaves such works with the usual copyright protection unless applicable state or local law declares otherwise. Those laws, in turn, vary widely: 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.


In 2009, the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth District ruled, in County of Santa Clara v. California First Amendment Coalition, that the government may not claim copyright on public records.[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 public agencies (not state agencies as defined in Indiana Code 4-13-1-1) to place restrictions 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.[citation needed]

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. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law."[17] These works are clearly defined as public records, but may not be public domain.[citation needed]

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]

Government outside of states[edit]

Some parts of the United States are not within U.S. states, and instead derive their authority from federal acts of Congress. They have varying degrees of autonomy, which affects whether their governments' works are public domain works of the United States government, which the current Copyright Act of 1976 describes as "a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties".[19]

Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition gives guidance about which jurisdictions are, or are not, the United States government:

  • Works of the governments of the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the "organized territories" (incorporated or unincorporated) are considered U.S. Government works.[20]
  • For the unorganized territories, "Domicile or first publication in any of the territorial areas under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government — other than the several states, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the organized territories — does not confer eligibility for [copyright] registration. Such areas include the unorganized territories, the trust territories, and other possessions of the United States." Registration may be permitted, however, depending on the nationality of the individual.[21] However, some older works in the unorganized territories may be copyrightable. Copyright renewal was required for works published or registered on or before December 31, 1963, but not for works published or registered after that date.[22] "For renewal registration purposes, the United States comprise the States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, Panama Canal Zone, America Samoa, and other trust territories. For the manufacturing requirements, unorganized areas under the jurisdiction of the United States (such as Guam, Panama Canal Zone, Virgin Islands, and American Samoa) are not considered a part of the United States."[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, Chapter 200, § 206.01. As of 1998 supplement. "Edicts of government, such as judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments, public ordinances, and similar official legal documents are not copyrightable for reasons of public policy. This applies to such works whether they are Federal, State, or local as well as to those of foreign governments."
  2. ^ CENDI/2008-1 CENDI Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright: Issues Affecting the U.S. Government 3.1.3 "Does 17 USC §10560 apply to works of State and Local Governments?" "No, it applies only to federal government works. State and local governments may and often do claim copyright in their publications. It is their prerogative to set policies that may allow, require, restrict or prohibit claim of copyright on some or all works produced by their government units."
  3. ^ Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, Chapter 200, § 206.03. As of 1998 supplement.
  4. ^ California County Hoarding Map Data Ordered to Pay $500,000 | Threat Level |
  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. ^ IC 5-14-3: Chapter 3. Access to Public Records
  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. ^ 17 U.S.C. § 101
  20. ^ Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, Chapter 300, §313.6(C)(1).
  21. ^ Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, Chapter 2000, §2005.3.
  22. ^ Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, Chapter 300, §313.6(D)).
  23. ^ Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, Chapter 2100, Part VIII Glossary of Terms, p. 85.