Skip to main content

Are Government Docs in the Public Domain?

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.

Want more?

Image placeholder title
  • Pick up your copy of the Beginning Writer's Answer Book. For more details about the book, click here.
  • Follow the WD Editors on Twitter: @writersdigest@BrianKlems@JaneFriedman @robertleebrewer @JessicaStrawser @ChuckSambuchino
  • Become a fan at our Facebook page
Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 597

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write an "Imagine a World..." poem.

How To Create a Podcast, Develop an Audience, and Get Your Novel Published

How To Create a Podcast, Develop an Audience, and Get Your Novel Published

We’ve discussed podcasting to help promote the book you’ve written—but what about podcasting as a way to tell the story itself? Here, author Liz Keller Whitehurst discusses how the podcast of her novel, Messenger, came to be.

Hunter or Hunted?

Hunter or Hunted?

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, we're in the middle of a hunt.

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory

Announcing the Get Published in 2022: Breaking In Resource Directory from Writer's Digest magazine, which includes advice from 41 agents, 39 debut authors, and 27 small presses.

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

The Idaho Review: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at The Idaho Review, a literary journal accepting poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction submissions.

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Learn when you're using an abbreviation vs. acronym vs. initialism with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

What Is Investigative Journalism?

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Alison Hill breaks down the definition of investigative journalism, how good investigative journalism makes for sweeping societal change, and how the landscape of the work is evolving.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 6 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce six new WDU courses, a romance writing virtual conference, and more!

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Past experiences taught bestselling author Alan Russell to tread lightly when it came to collaborating on projects. Here, he discusses how the right person and the right story helped him go from a “me” to a “we.”