national flags ... public domain?
October 25, 2007 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Are national flags in the public domain?

Are there legal implications/restrictions on altering national flags for profitable purposes (art, etc.)? Is there a kind of general rule or do various sovereign states have drastically different laws/codes defining what can and cannot be done with their flags?

(FWIW I'm an American.)
posted by deep_sea_diving_suit to Law & Government (7 answers total)
The laws regarding the United States flag, are known as the "flag code" I'm sure other nations have similar laws, but they don't apply outside of that country.
posted by borkencode at 7:17 PM on October 25, 2007

I can give you the New Zealand law:

11. Every person commits an offence against this Act who,—

(a)Without lawful authority, alters the New Zealand Flag by the placement thereon of any letter, emblem, or representation.

Flags Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981 via
posted by Infinite Jest at 7:26 PM on October 25, 2007

It seems to me that legal restrictions on the use of a flag wouldn’t be matters of copyright or the public domain, they’d be matters of the flag code, like in Infinite’s example.

I did find this, though: “Flags, or any other object subject to copyright, are never actively ‘copyrighted’ according to modern intellectual property law. The copyright protection comes naturally, whether you want it or not, when you create a work of art or literature. This has always been the case in European copyright laws, and is the same in the US copyright law since at least a decade and a half back. Then it is up to you as creator or owner of the said work to release it to common use if you want to. If the work is owned by the state (as is the case with acts of law and e.g. national flags) this is done automatically on a regular basis.”
posted by tepidmonkey at 7:32 PM on October 25, 2007

If you look how national flags are used on all kinds of stuff during international sports events (World Cup, etc.), nobody seems to mind.
posted by bru at 7:38 PM on October 25, 2007

Wikipedia has pictures of flags on this basis:

This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the United States Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.

Also, violating the Flag Code has no punishment, i.e. the flag burning debate, the wide availability of flag napkins, the covering of a football field with a flag even though it is not "aloft and free," or the Adbusters coporate flag.
posted by ALongDecember at 7:47 PM on October 25, 2007

Mod note: few comments removed - photos of naked women wearing only painted-on flag designs are not actually answers to the question
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:04 PM on October 25, 2007 [3 favorites]

borkencode: The laws regarding the United States flag, are known as the "flag code" I'm sure other nations have similar laws, but they don't apply outside of that country.

There really aren't laws that apply to the American flag. The Flag Code is the guideline under which government bodies fly the flag and how civilians are recommended to display it. It has no power over civilians. Flag burning is still legal thanks to the First Amendment.

The US flag's image is open for you to use; I can no speak about any other nation.
posted by spaltavian at 4:15 PM on October 26, 2007

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