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This is a question, for simplicity's sake concerning UN member states.

Are the designs of all national flags in the public domain?

Are there any examples of copyrights?

I'm looking to use flags in a website.

I also believe the 'Threshold of Originality' may apply (but this is probably jurisdiction specific also).

  • some countries retain the rights to their flags. The United States does not claim copyright or any intellectual ownership of any of its productions. A place where you could find national flags in the public domain would be the publicly available CIA fact book on countries. I believe it has their flags. Since it is produced by the U.S. Gov, it is in the public domain. – Viktor Jan 5 '16 at 23:33
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    ok so in the US if a work is in the public domain, all constituent parts of that work are also in the public domain..? Not just the additions of the author(s) to pre-existing material. You should probably put your comment as an answer. – David Anderton Jan 5 '16 at 23:54
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    @Victor The advice is just plain wrong. If an item is copyright, the fact that someone (even the US government) has published an infringing or licenced copy does not make it non-copyright. – Dale M Jan 6 '16 at 0:11
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    @Victor If the work is (c) me and the US government publishes a derivative work I can sue their ass off, along with anyone else who does so. An illegal derivative work is not public domain. – Dale M Jan 6 '16 at 0:41
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    @Viktor Wrong. Any work created by a US government employee as part of his official duties is not protected by US copyright law (although it may be protected abroad). That doesn't mean anything published by the government is public domain; it doesn't mean the government can't hold copyright (it absolutely can; for instance, work done by a contractor is copyrighted, and the contract can assign it to the government); it doesn't mean non-government work included in a government work loses protection. – cpast Jan 6 '16 at 0:46
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Prima facie all flags would be artistic works with copyright vesting in their creators; either the designer or the designer's employer. The copyright is probably owned by the government of the relevant country either by virtue of the creator being an employee or by transfer.

However, a significant number would be in the public domain because:

  • They were created before the legal concept of copyright existed (e.g. Denmark - 1219)
  • The term of copyright protection has expired (e.g. United Kingdom - 1801)
  • It is government policy that government works are public domain (e.g. United States)

Notwithstanding, it is extremely unlikely that you could be successfully prosecuted for copyright breach for using a national flag design as you would have a near watertight fair use/fair dealing defence for public policy reasons.

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    Good answer, but please beware that in addition to copyright restrictions (not very likely, as Dale M pointed) there can be non copyright restrictions on the use of flags and other state symbols. For example, in some countries you can't use the state flag for trademarks, or you can't use it in an unrespectful way. – Pere Aug 20 '16 at 22:50
  • @Pere good point and well spotted in the OP's commentary rather than the thrust of the question – Dale M Aug 20 '16 at 23:12
  • I don't know if this is a valid point or not, but the sheer abundance of flag art that's marketed as public domain may be relevant. – David Blomstrom Oct 19 '17 at 1:09

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