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Are Government Docs in the Public Domain?

Categories: Legal Questions.

Q: Am I allowed to use text from a government document in my manuscript? —Amy V.

A: The short answer is yes. Nearly all documents published by the government are part of the public domain and, therefore, free to use in your work. So if you want to use statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, go ahead. If you want to cite a decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s yours to use. If your local government has a law on the books that bans babies from wearing Megadeth onesies, you can reprint it word-for-word.

Occasionally you’ll run into a document that has copyrighted material quoted within it and, if that’s the case, you can’t use the copyrighted work. For example, if there’s a lawsuit that cites Tim McGraw song lyrics in it—songs are copyrighted works—you don’t have the right to reprint the lyrics. But you can print the other details that aren’t copyrighted. Also, there are a few items related to the post office that are not in the public domain, but those will have the copyright symbol on them (which is a key indication of whether you can use a public document or not).

Finally, if you do choose to use quote government documents in your work, remember, you must cite it in your footnotes or bibliography. For the proper way to do this, check out the citation guide from the Columbia University Libraries.

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