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. Subject matter of copyright: United States Government works
The general prohibition against copyright in section 105 applies to “any work of the United States Government,” which is defined in section 101 as “a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.” Under this definition a Government official or employee would not be prevented from securing copyright in a work written at that person’s own volition and outside his or her duties, even though the subject matter involves the Government work or professional field of the official or employee. Although the wording of the definition of “work of the United States Government” differs somewhat from that of the definition of “work made for hire,” the concepts are intended to be construed in the same way.
A more difficult and far-reaching problem is whether the definition should be broadened to prohibit copyright in works prepared under U.S. Government contract or grant. As the bill is written, the Government agency concerned could determine in each case whether to allow an independent contractor or grantee, to secure copyright in works prepared in whole or in part with the use of Government funds. The argument that has been made against allowing copyright in this situation is that the public should not be required to pay a “double subsidy,” and that it is inconsistent to prohibit copyright in works by Government employees while permitting private copyrights in a growing body of works created by persons who are paid with Government funds. Those arguing in favor of potential copyright protection have stressed the importance of copyright as an incentive to creation and dissemination in this situation, and the basically different policy considerations, applicable to works written by Government employees and those applicable to works prepared by private organizations with the use of Federal funds.
The bill deliberately avoids making any sort of outright, unqualified prohibition against copyright in works prepared under Government contract or grant. There may well be cases where it would be in the public interest to deny copyright in the writings generated by Government research contracts and the like; it can be assumed that, where a Government agency commissions a work for its own use merely as an alternative to having one of its own employees prepare the work, the right to secure a private copyright would be withheld. However, there are almost certainly many other cases where the denial of copyright protection would be unfair or would hamper the production and publication of important works. Where, under the particular circumstances, Congress or the agency involved finds that the need to have a work freely available outweighs the need of the private author to secure copyright, the problem can be dealt with by specific legislation, agency regulations, or contractual restrictions.
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.
The effect of section 105 is intended to place all works of the United States Government, published or unpublished, in the public domain. This means that the individual Government official or employee who wrote the work could not secure copyright in it or restrain its dissemination by the Government or anyone else, but it also means that, as far as the copyright law is concerned, the Government could not restrain the employee or official from disseminating the work if he or she chooses to do so. The use of the term “work of the United States Government” does not mean that a work falling within the definition of that term is the property of the U.S. Government.
At the House hearings in 1975 the U.S. Department of Commerce called attention to its National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which has a statutory mandate, under Chapter 23 [§ 1151 et seq.] of Title 15 of the U.S. Code, to operate a clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of scientific, technical and engineering information. Under its statute, NTIS is required to be as self-sustaining as possible, and not to force the general public to bear publishing costs that are for private benefit. The Department urged an amendment to section 105 that would allow it to secure copyright in NTIS publications both in the United States and abroad, noting that a precedent exists in the Standard Reference Data Act (15 U.S.C. § 290(e) [§ 290e]).
In response to this request the Committee adopted a limited exception to the general prohibition in section 105, permitting the Secretary of Commerce to “secure copyright for a limited term not to exceed five years, on behalf of the United States as author or copyright owner” in any NTIS publication disseminated pursuant to 15 U.S.C. Chapter 23 [§ 1151 et seq.]. In order to “secure copyright” in a work under this amendment the Secretary would be required to publish the work with a copyright notice, and the five-year term would begin upon the date of first publication.
Retention of a saving clause has been urged on the ground that the present statutory provision is frequently cited, and that having the provision expressly stated in the law would avoid questions and explanations. The committee here observes: (1) there is nothing in section 105 that would relieve the Government of its obligation to secure permission in order to publish a copyrighted work; and (2) publication or other use by the Government of a private work would not affect its copyright protection in any way. The question of use of copyrighted material in documents published by the Congress and its Committees is discussed below in connection with section 107.