Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Copyright and state web sites

A lot of folks apparently are under the illusion that if you see a photograph or document on an official state website, that this photograph or document is automatically public domain. That is not true. Copyright law is a Federal law, one of the powers specifically granted to Congress, and there is no Federal law stating that public documents at the state or local level are public domain.

In short, you are at the mercy of your state's laws there, most of which simply state you can view public documents -- not that you can freely copy everything that has been placed into a public documents repository. That is especially irritating for those of us who do electrical work because the National Electrical Code has been written into law in many municipalities, but with local modifications. But the National Electrical Code -- AND its local modifications -- are copyrighted. In a place like the Silicon Valley where there are dozens of municipalities in a fairly small area, that means that either you spend a lot of money buying each municipality's slightly different copy of the NEC, or you just get the national NEC book and hope that the inspector will let you slide by on that.

So anyhow, what brought this on is that a restaurant owner thought that a photograph of Sarah Palin on the State of Alaska web site was public domain, and thus could be freely used on his web site. The photographer's lawyer strongly dissented on that one. It turns out that the State of Alaska did what a lot of states do -- rather than have a photographer on staff to create photographs of personalities and events, they simply licensed what is called "stock photography" -- photography from places like news services and private providers such as Getty Images that are still owned by their original photographers.

The copyright to virtually every photograph on any state's web site, in other words, still rests with the original photographer. The state merely licensed the right to use that image *on their web site*. And if you want to use it on *your* web site, you, too, must similarly pay a license fee to the photographer or photographer's agent (such as Getty Images).

Now, most of us aren't going to have to worry about a lawyer tracking us down. We're arguably within a "fair use" category -- we're providing political commentary and discourse for free and using the photograph for illustrative purposes rather than for business purposes. But if you use one of these images on your businesses web site, expect to be contacted by a lawyer. Because these photographers make their living off of licensing fees for business use of their photographs -- and if you don't pay, they *can* ream you a new one under the law.

-- Badtux the Copyright Penguin

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