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From what I understand, large swaths of US Government works are considered "public domain", but this unrestricted status applies only within the United States,

For this question I am assuming the work is unambiguously a US Federal Government work that would otherwise be public domain to someone within the US.

Can the US Government claim copyright to this work internationally?

and optionally:

Has there ever been an instance of the US Government defending the copyright of such a work internationally?

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According to CENDI, yes the US government is able to claim copyright on works internationally.

The law in question which makes US government works public domain in the US (17 U.S. Code § 105) only does so within the confines of US copyright. Since copyright protection is on a per-country basis, there's no reason that the US government couldn't assert IP rights under foreign copyright law (though I didn't go looking for an example).

While the Berne Convention generally requires countries to provide foreign works the same protection as domestic works, I can think of two general reasons why US government works wouldn't fall under copyright protection in some countries:

  • The country simply doesn't apply copyright protection to any government works (don't know how common this is).
  • The country applies the rule of the shorter term. If they do, they aren't required to provide a longer term of protection than the country of origin does (which is nil in this case).

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