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.
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, the content on a federal government website is not protected by copyright. However, this is only the case if the content is created by an employee of the agency publishing the site 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 many government sites are not actually created by government employees. Instead, third parties are contracted to do the design work and maintain the site. When this occurs, the content on the site is protected by copyright, and you cannot use it. For instance, we would be barred from using the map graphic on the CIA website if a third party created it instead of CIA employees.
How To Tell
Is there some method for determining whether the elements of a government website are copyright protected or not? 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…”
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 site that implies the government agency is endorsing your site, service or product.
It should also be noted we are referring to the federal government of the United States in this discussion. The content found on state or municipal government websites is copyright protected, so you can’t republish it.
If you must have 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.