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Copyright Guide

This guide provides information, guidelines, and resources on copyright law for Marine Corps University faculty, students, and staff.

What is Public Domain?

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. The United States Copyright Office defines the Public domain as: "The public domain is not a place. A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner."

Are all US Government Works in the Public Domain?

Many believe all information published or sponsored by the U.S. Government or available from a U.S. government source, such as a government website, is in the public domain.


However, many documents and websites produced by and for the US Government may contain copyrighted information.

  • A privately created work included, with permission, in a U.S. Government work does not place the private work into the public domain.
  • Works produced by contractors and grantees for the governments are often copyrighted. In such cases, the Government is granted a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free license in the work to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, and to allow others to do so, for U.S. Government purposes. The Government’s license does not place these works in the public domain.
  • A copyrighted work for which the copyright has been transferred to the Government by assignment or bequest is not in the public domain.
  • Government websites may contain both copyrighted and public domain materials with different terms and restrictions for use.
  • Government products and websites may include embedded information (e.g., quotation, photograph, chart, drawing, etc.) that is copyrighted but used under license or with permission. The government’s license or permitted use of a copyrighted work does not place it in the public domain.
  • Government websites may include copyrighted work licensed to the government by the rights holder. Because the copyright owner retains its exclusive rights under the copyright, the work is not in the public domain.
  • Government websites and products may include links to copyrighted information or licensed materials that are provided to the public only upon limited terms and conditions of use.
  • Government websites may provide access to software that is protected by copyright and/or patent. Terms of use should be provided on the government website. Such access does not place the software in the public domain.

The user is responsible for determining whether or not a work is in the public domain.


However, the lack of clear, consistent, and prominent copyright statements on government websites and the fact that most information produced by and for the Government is not marked upon creation with its copyright status makes it difficult for users to determine their right to use information on government websites.

Information extracted from a CENDI report Don’t Keep the Public Guessing.

Public Domain Online Resources

Public Domain Image Websites

Copyright-free image sites for icons, photos, etc.

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