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Are U.S. Government publications in the Public Domain?
August 23, 2007 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Are U.S. Government publications copyrighted or in the Public Domain? More specifically, are Federal Reserve publications copyrighted or in the Public Domain? I'd like to be able to monkey with these comics, but am wary of violating copyright. (I've sent e-mail to the Federal Reserve asking this same question, but am skeptical that I'll receive a timely response.)
posted by jdroth to Law & Government (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can't speak to the US, but in Canada, anything published by the government is copyrighted. I expect the US is the same...
posted by LN at 9:42 AM on August 23, 2007


Are you thinking of selling the results of your monkeying? I'm not sure of the legal ramifications, but I wouldn't let that stop you. Monkey away.
posted by mike_bling at 9:46 AM on August 23, 2007


I'm sure this is far too obvious, but have you seen this?
posted by phoenixy at 9:49 AM on August 23, 2007


I'm not going to sell my monkeywork, but I will post it on a web site from which I profit.
posted by jdroth at 9:52 AM on August 23, 2007


(And great article, phoenixy. It doesn't quite answer my question, but it does give me hope, and gives me some avenues to explore...)
posted by jdroth at 9:53 AM on August 23, 2007


What phenixy said. Also see, this section of Stanford's fair use information web site.

The bottom line is that you'll need to look at the publication itself and see if it is protected by a copyright, since it may have been produced by a contractor.
posted by NormieP at 9:57 AM on August 23, 2007


Crap, I missed an O, sorry.
posted by NormieP at 9:57 AM on August 23, 2007


Works of the U.S. government, defined as "work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties," are usually in the public domain. The employees of Federal Reserve Banks are not U.S. government employees. I think employees of the Board of Governors would be. If the work was prepared by a contractor then it gets more complicated.
posted by grouse at 9:58 AM on August 23, 2007


None of the publications in question contain a copyright notice. That is, I have three of the comics here in front of me, and none of them contains copyright notification anywhere inside. (Or outside.)
posted by jdroth at 9:59 AM on August 23, 2007


Ug, apparently lack of copyright notice doesn't prove anything (see the very last part of the link I posted a bit back). You're probably ok (assuming board employees are really federal employees), but it sounds like you may have to ask to be sure.
posted by NormieP at 10:05 AM on August 23, 2007


From the Wikipedia article: "A work of the United States government . . . [is] not entitled to domestic copyright protection under U.S. law."

If that doesn't answer your question, I'm not sure I understand what your question is. The Fed is a government agency full of government employees. Their work product is not copyrightable.

If you're asking if those specific comics are copyrighted, well, that's something else entirely and would depend on who produced them and the contracts that went along with their use by the FR. (Something I'm sure could be obtained via FOIA request, if you were really enterprising)

(IANAL, IANYL, TINLA, YMMV)
posted by toomuchpete at 10:06 AM on August 23, 2007


I hadn't considered that an individual FR bank employee produced these... it seems improbable, but not impossible. It seems much more likely that these were either contracted for licensed.

I really doubt the government would pay for something that they're trying to sell, and then include a clause in the contract putting it all in the public domain... so the odds, I think, are on those comics being copyrighted either (via assignment) by the Government or by the original author.
posted by toomuchpete at 10:10 AM on August 23, 2007


I think you need to ask the Fed to be sure. Although works produced by the government are supposed to be in the public domain, unfortunately this rule was never carried over to contractors hired by the U.S. government (but who are not actually USG employees themselves). This results in a lot of things that look like government publications but actually have some copyright on them, because they were done by a contractor.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:16 AM on August 23, 2007


I would assume that you are not okay, because the publications in questions are listed as publications of the various Federal Reserve banks, not the board. I agree that it is probably most likely that a contractor produced these. I think creation by employees of the board is the least likely scenario.

All that said, they may not care whether you do anything with it anyway.
posted by grouse at 10:19 AM on August 23, 2007


Oops, I didn't notice that this was specifically a NY fed site. Yeah, it's very unlikely that they are in the public domain.
posted by NormieP at 10:24 AM on August 23, 2007


The material is NOT copyrighted.

See here (Section II A):

As part of our commitment to effective investor education, we routinely create and disseminate neutral, unbiased information on saving and investing. Our educational materials are all directed at helping people make wise investment choices and avoid fraud. We do not copyright any of our materials, and we make them freely available to all, in both Spanish and English. Our goal is to empower investors, to give them the tools they need to evaluate their investment options and make informed decisions.
posted by beagle at 10:30 AM on August 23, 2007


beagle, that's the Securities and Exchange Commission, we're talking about the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Boston.
posted by grouse at 10:32 AM on August 23, 2007


Dang, sorry about that. Back to the boards.
posted by beagle at 10:43 AM on August 23, 2007


Satire of copyrighted works is allowed, otherwise Weird Al Yankovic would have no career. Lampoon away!
posted by Doohickie at 12:06 PM on August 23, 2007


Satire of copyrighted works is allowed, otherwise Weird Al Yankovic would have no career.

This isn't an absolute. It depends on the sort of "monkeying" you want to do. The site NormieP linked to lists some cases where parody was found to be fair use or not. It also notes that:
As a general rule, parodying more than a few lines of a song lyric is unlikely to be excused as a fair use. Performers such as Weird Al Yankovic, who earn a living by humorously modifying hit songs, seek permission of the songwriters before recording their parodies.
posted by grouse at 12:38 PM on August 23, 2007


LN writes "I can't speak to the US, but in Canada, anything published by the government is copyrighted. I expect the US is the same..."

Sadly one of the things the US gets right and Canada gets wrong. It's really harmed the GIS industry in Canada and is one of the reasons internet map data is so much better for the US than Canada.
posted by Mitheral at 12:58 PM on August 23, 2007


My "monekeying" runs less toward satire and more toward "scanning and posting the whole damn thing to the internet".
posted by jdroth at 1:11 PM on August 23, 2007


I just picked up the phone and called the publication office number here (the joys of being in the nation's capital). The person who answered said they're government product and I'm free to copy them as I see fit.

Mind you, I got a "I believe so" initially so maybe it's not take-it-to-the-bank security, but it's word from them. You could call and ask for written acknowledgment. They answered on the second ring.
posted by phearlez at 1:30 PM on August 23, 2007


phearlez, you're awesome. I've sent two e-mails to the contact listed on the web site, and received no reply. I was hoping to avoid having to make a long distance call that might drag on forever.

Based on all this — phearlez' call, the Wikipedia article, the lack of copyright info in the publications — I'm going to proceed with my plans. If I get a cease-and-desist I'll comply, of course, but I think the likelihood is miniscule.

Thanks to everyone who helped research this!
posted by jdroth at 1:57 PM on August 23, 2007


As a general rule, parodying more than a few lines of a song lyric is unlikely to be excused as a fair use. Performers such as Weird Al Yankovic, who earn a living by humorously modifying hit songs, seek permission of the songwriters before recording their parodies.

They aren't required to. Parody is fair use; it doesn't matter how long it is.
posted by oaf at 2:05 PM on August 23, 2007


No worries, jd- consider it partial repayment for the pleasure your website brings me.

Oaf is correct that Weird Al gets permission primarily out of courtesy, not necessity, though there's probably some ass-covering there. Besides, there's no shortage of pop culture worthy or ridicule - why bother with things more likely to get you pasted in the nose. His song Amish Paradise was done with the belief that Coolio had okayed it, which it later turned out he had not. The only negative repercussion was Coolio making vague threats against Al during a grammy ceremony.

The issue with parody, as I have read it, is that you are protected against copyright claims for the item actually being parodied. You can use that picture from the Superman comic to mock Superman and the DC universe but you cannot use Superman to parody Dennys. Parody is not a blank check against all copyright claims.
posted by phearlez at 2:20 PM on August 23, 2007


oaf: To establish fair use, one must consider "the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole" (17 USC 107(3)). There is no exception for parody, although parodists may use more of the work. See Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, where the Supreme Court ruled that the amount used by a particular parody was a reasonable, but that there was still a limit to how much they could take:
Once enough has been taken to assure identification, how much more is reasonable will depend, say, on the extent to which the song's overriding purpose and character is to parody the original or, in contrast, the likelihood that the parody may serve as a market substitute for the original.
An additional issue with parody is that a court might not agree that what you are doing is really a parody. See the link in my last comment to the Stanford Fair Use pages for a couple of cases where a court didn't.
posted by grouse at 2:29 PM on August 23, 2007


Update: I just spoke with the manager of education programs at the Federal Reserve. He told me that I not only was I not allowed to post anything from the comics, but that I was not allowed to link to the order page. The latter just about made me blow a gasket. Anyhow, he's agreed to ask a higher-up. He had no idea whether the work was copyright or in the public domain. In fact, he had no idea about the difference between the two notions...
posted by jdroth at 11:32 AM on August 27, 2007


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