Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.

-- 17 U.S. Code § 105

Are such works distributed in the public domain outside the United States?

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    related (duplicate?): law.stackexchange.com/q/31330/3209
    – DPenner1
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 21:42
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    @DPenner1 I'm not sure the question is exactly a duplicate. That question is about whether the US government can affirmatively claim and enforce copyright on overseas use of their works. This question seems to be more about whether non-US law tends to respect this public-domain status or whether they recognize the US government as the copyright holder under their own domestic copyright regimes. Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 10:39

4 Answers 4


There are several official and unofficial sources that say that the public domain status of works of the US Federal Government only applies within the US.


"Government Works" on USA.GOV

According to "Copyright Exceptions for U.S. Government Works":

U.S. copyright laws may not protect U.S. government works outside the country. But the work may be protected under the copyright laws of other jurisdictions when used in these jurisdictions. The U.S. government may assert copyright outside of the United States for U.S. government works.

Government Copyright FAQ on cendi.gov

According to Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright: Issues Affecting the U.S. Government (CENDI/2008-1) (Revised December 2017) FAQ Item 3.1.7:

3.1.7 Does the Government have copyright protection in U.S. Government works in other countries?

Yes, the copyright exclusion for works of the U.S. Government is not intended to have any impact on protection of these works abroad (S. REP. NO. 473, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 56 (1976)).

Therefore, the U.S. Government may obtain protection in other countries depending on the treatment of government works by the national copyright law of the particular country. Copyright is sometimes asserted by U.S. Government agencies outside the United States.

US House report on the 1976 Copyright Act

According to that part of the "House report no. 94–1476" included as "Historical and Revision Notes" to the test of 17 USC 105 in the version of "TITLE 17—COPYRIGHTS" on Govinfo

The prohibition on copyright protection for United States Government works is not intended to have any effect on protection of these works abroad. Works of the governments of most other countries are copyrighted. There are no valid policy reasons for denying such protection to United States Government works in foreign countries, or for precluding the Government from making licenses for the use of its works abroad.

Public Domain Sherpa

According to "Public Domain Sherpa":

US government agencies may claim copyright abroad

While US government works generally are in the public domain in the US, they may be protected by copyright abroad. The feds may claim copyright protection for US government works in other countries depending on how those countries treat their own government works. So just be aware that US government agencies sometimes claim copyright in their works outside the US.

Protecting Government Works

According to the section "Copyright Protection Abroad For Government Works" of "Protecting Government Works: The Copyright Issue" by Paul C. Manz, Michael J. Zelenka, Raymond S. Wittig, and Sally A. Smit in

... If another signatory to the Berne Convention, however, allows copyright protection of its government works (i.e., Crown Copyright of the United Kingdom31 or Canadian Copyright Act32), it is clear that that country’s courts must afford protection to similar works of the U.S. Government, despite the fact that the work could not be protected in the United States.

Congressional legislative history supports this position. [The document goes on to quote the same passage of the house report notes to 17 USC 105 quoted above.]

... For a work to be eligible in a foreign country for copyright protection, it must qualify under the particular laws and requirements specific to that country (i.e., in the United Kingdom copyright requirements are provided in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988). Other countries and their laws may differ from the requirements for copyright protection as set forth in the United States Copyright Act. ...


Article 5 Paragraph 2 of the Berne Copyright Convention specifies that (emphasis added):

... such enjoyment and such exercise shall be independent of the existence of protection in the country of origin of the work. Consequently, apart from the provisions of this Convention, the extent of protection, as well as the means of redress afforded to the author to protect his rights, shall be governed exclusively by the laws of the country where protection is claimed.

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    But what about en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_the_shorter_term?
    – Mormegil
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 17:19
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    @Mormegil The US does not follow the rule of the shorter term. If you mean the other country should apply it and reach a term of zero, a shorter term is not the same as "not subject to copyright at all", and a term shorter than the minimum permitted by Berne is not normally applied. Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 17:25
  • As the rule of the shorter term is not obligatory, the result obviously depends on the specific country where protection would be claimed. But yes, “not subject to copyright at all” is generally comparable to “term of zero”. See e.g. “the term to be compared was equal to zero, and State A would not be obligated to grant protection for longer than zero years” in [Patry, W.: Choice of Law and International Copyright, 48 Am. J. Comp. L. 383].
    – Mormegil
    Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 6:58
  • @Mormegil As I understanfr it,Berne Article 5(2) specifically reouditews the idea that "not subject to copyright" us to be considered as a "term of zero" in a rule of the shorter term situation. Was Patry writing from a UCC position, rather than Berne? Can you provide a link to that article? Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 7:08
  • IANAL but my understanding is that Berne treats the creator as the default copyright owner, so even if USG doesn't claim the copyright for itself in the rest-of-world shouldn't the works be treated as copyrighted by the employee rather than public domain?
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 20:26

In 1977, the US put the question of whether it could enforce US government copyrights in other nations to the members of the Universal Copyright Convention; in 1981, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000046710 was released. The responses were mixed, and while the Soviet bloc nations that disagreed mostly do not exist or have changed governments, India, Italy, Japan and Mexico all believed that other signers of the UCC were under no obligation to protect US government works in their nations. I am not aware of any tests to those claims, leaving the question of whether a US lawsuit would be successful in those nations and others unclear.

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    However, under article 5(2) of the Berne convention, the existence of protection is governed by the law of the nation where a claim is made, not the law of the country of origin. Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 18:32

Are works created by the USA government employees in the performance of their duties in public domain outside the USA?

Yes (under U.S. law). The U.S. government does not have a copyright under U.S. law for its works.

Apparently, however, the U.S. government has the authority to claim copyrights arising under non-U.S. law for works published abroad, but it is my understanding that it rarely does so.

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    I believe this is incorrect. I am working on an answer. Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 20:46
  • @DavidSiegel If I'm incorrect and there is authority to back it up, I'll admit that I'm wrong. I'm not aware of a contrary rule.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 21:05
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    I have cites three US Government sources that there is (or at least can be) a contrary rule in my answer below. Note that they all say that the US Government may assert such claims outside the limits of the US, not that the US Government routinely makes such assertions. Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 21:19
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    @DavidSiegel Revised consistent with your answer.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 22:08
  • "authority to claim copyrights" might be deceptive - the US government would not need to claim the copyright, as that generally would be automatic. Assertion or enforcement would still require action.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 13:43

Also note that not all jurisdictions have a concept of public domain. Many European countries do not, as copyright ownership renounces are void (but not transfers). However, you can forfeit all copyright rights, as a "do-whatever-you-want" license, which effectively serves as a sort of public domain grant. In these countries, without explicit grants, public domain works may be treated as fully copyrighted.

That's why Creative Commons' CC0 is a thing.

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    I believe those countries still have a concept of "public domain" for works whose copyright has expired. Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 15:56

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