In the United States, who, if anyone, owns the copyright to mugshots (or perhaps any "work", if the principles generalize) produced by federal, state, or local employees?

If there is too much variation to cover exhaustively in a single answer, a general description of that variation or a few examples would be great.


1 Answer 1


The Mugshot was most likely made by a state employee in the course of their work.

Employees don't get a copyright for works from their work but their employers do so generally, as that is work for hire. However, the government is different:

  • The US government specifically can't have any copyright from works of its employees. They are public domain. 17 USC 101 & 105
  • State governments are a little different. Technically they could be copyrighted unless they are laws and edicts, but states might disclaim such:
    • Arizona employees make Arizona copyrighted works.
    • California works require public access and are public domain unless the state specifically authorizes a work to be copyrighted.
    • Florida and its employees can't have copyright in government works unless they specifically make a law that carves a work out from this beforehand.
    • Indiana employees make technically copyrighted works, but they can't restrict use by obtaining a license or fee in any way under IC 5-14-3, making them quasi-public domain.

A public domain image can be done with whatever you want. No strings attached, no rights of rightsholders violated.

However, not everything made on behalf of the government is made by the government: Contractors do have the copyright in the first place, and then can assign it to a government, which does not make a work public domain.

  • 3
    By "state employee" do you mean to include "municipal employee"? Many if not most police officers are employed by municipalities or counties. Whether this makes a difference to the analysis probably varies by state.
    – phoog
    Nov 26, 2022 at 16:06
  • 1
    None that contractors hired by the US Federal Government produce many works. These are protected by copyright, and in most cases initially owned by the contractor. But many are assigned to the Federal Government. Nov 26, 2022 at 17:03
  • 1
    @phoog most often, municipalities and counties are not separate entities from the state for such questions but considered subsidiaries.
    – Trish
    Nov 26, 2022 at 17:08
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    @Trish Quite so, but readers may not appreciate the difference. For the matter of that, it is not always made clear whether a work was produced by an employee or a contractor. Many people incorrectly think that n all works paid for by the federal government are public domain. Nov 26, 2022 at 19:37
  • 3
    @Mazura: You have publicity rights, which can be subject to licensing, but are (usually) not trademarks. Publicity rights are rather limited in the US, and mostly apply to things like celebrity endorsements and such, but in theory, you could try to litigate most any commercial use of your image. I'm skeptical you would get very far in the case of e.g. a newspaper publishing a mugshot, however.
    – Kevin
    Nov 26, 2022 at 23:44

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