You are mindlessly browsing the web one day and run across the CIA World Fact Book website. You see a great clickable map graphic that would look great on a site you are building. Can you copy the graphic and use it in your web design or not? The answer might surprise you as the relationship between government website content and copyright isn’t as clear as most people suggest.
There is a common belief among web designers that copyright does not apply to content on government websites. Put another way; you can copy and republish the content you find on such sites, such as the map graphic mentioned above, without worrying about copyright issues.
Is this belief correct? Yes and no. In general, copyright law does not protect the content on a federal government website. However, this is only the case if an employee of the agency creates the material as part of his or her regular duties. Few people are aware of this second requirement.
The problem with the copyright-government website issue is government employees do not create most of the content on the sites. Instead, government agencies contract third parties to do the design work and maintain the site. When this occurs, the creator owns the copyright in the content on the site, and you cannot use it without permission. For instance, we could not use the map graphic on the CIA website if a third party created it instead of CIA employees.
How To Tell
How do you determine if you can use the content on a federal government website? Most government websites contain a statement indicating the copyright status of the content on the site and whether you can use it.
In the case of the CIA World Fact Book, the agency has included a copyright notice reading:
“Unless a copyright is indicated, information on the Central Intelligence Agency Web site is in the public domain and may be reproduced, published or otherwise used without the Central Intelligence Agency’s permission. We request only that the Central Intelligence Agency be cited as the source of the information and that any photo credits or bylines be similarly credited to the photographer or author or Central Intelligence Agency, as appropriate.
If a copyright is indicated on a photo, graphic, or any other material, permission to copy these materials must be obtained from the original source…”
This type of notice is par for the course with government websites.
Although you can often reuse content on a government website without worrying about copyright infringement claims, you must adhere to a few additional restrictions. For instance, you can never:
- Use trademarks or logos on a government site without permission, or
- Use content from a website that implies the government agency is endorsing your site, service, or product.
You should keep in mind we are referring to the federal government of the United States in this discussion of government website content and copyright. This exception does not apply to state or municipal government websites, so you can’t republish content on those sites.
If you must use content from a government website, the best approach is to seek permission from the relevant agency to use the material in question. If the agency agrees, ask for a confirming email as evidence of the authorization.
Richard A. Chapo, Esq.
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