Copyright touches many library services because we collect, share and loan original works fixed in a wide variety of tangible media. The Copyright Resources Center conducted a series of informational interviews with faculty and staff from various areas of The Ohio State University Libraries to discuss the ways in which they engage with copyright issues. This blog series documents those conversations, and highlights how copyright law helps to shape services provided by the Libraries. See all available posts in the series here.

Photo of Mary Ann Ries

Mary Ann Ries, Library Associate

The OSU Libraries have been collecting government publications for over a century: since it became a Federal Depository Library in 1902. Government publications may be generally defined as any material (print or digital) published by any government agency, including federal, state, county, and city. The collection at OSUL includes U.S. government materials from all of the above categories, and also includes international materials. I met with Mary Ann Ries, Library Associate for Research and Education, to discuss our government publications collection and how copyright affects this particular collection.

U.S. Copyright Law (17 U.S.C. §105) excludes “any work of the United States Government” from copyright protection, placing federal works in the public domain instantly upon creation. A previous blog post examines what types of publications may qualify as works of the U.S. Government; generally speaking, however, the work must be “prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties” (17 U.S.C. §101). Many federal agencies now provide online access to their public domain materials, including images and other media. For example, NASA provides an online media library and various departments within the Department of Defense provide online photo galleries.

The OSUL government publications collection includes many such public domain federal works, but the collection also encompasses a much wider range of materials including state, county, city, and international items. Section 105 only excludes works of the U.S. federal government from copyright protection; most contemporary state, county, and city publications receive copyright protection depending on local laws. While these non-federal documents may be protected by copyright, many documents published at all levels of government contain data and other factual information, which copyright does not protect. Overall, government documents provide a large, rich source of copyright free materials for use in research and education, and are one of the few sources of contemporary public domain works.

Many subject areas in the libraries are collecting an increasing amount of born digital objects as well as relying more and more on online access to digital content (including subscription access). Government publications are no exception: agencies now frequently publish born digital materials and offer access to the materials through online portals. Relying on electronic access to items not under the Libraries’ control offers convenience as well as drawbacks. Many issues attending the access vs. ownership question are known all too well: ongoing costs, restrictive licensing terms, and loss of access if/when the subscription ends, to name a few.

Mary Ann also manages the Libraries’ microforms collection. During our discussion regarding access vs. ownership of government publications , she noted that while microforms are a complete reproduction of a newspaper or other object, many digital subscriptions to the same works omit photographs and other content due to potential copyright issues. Claiming a digital equivalency for physical collections may not be as straightforward as it first seems; libraries should consider whether they are losing important materials when weeding physical objects in favor of digital “equivalencies.”

The question of ensuring continuous access to digital materials is not exclusive to subscription content. The OSU Libraries lost access to many materials during the government shut down in 2013; Mary Ann recalls losing access to all government databases for two weeks, including the copyright office, patent and trademark office, and census information due to the government shut down. Users were unable to search copyright records at or register new copyrights with the Copyright Office throughout the shutdown. This example illustrates how collections with a large percentage of public domain materials may still encounter access issues when the material is not owned by the library.

This blog has presented a snapshot of the impact copyright has on just one area of the Libraries. Copyright affects libraries and higher education in a multitude of ways, often with idiosyncrasies particular to various subjects and disciplines. Additional posts in this series explore other instances in which copyright affects library services and collections; you can see all available posts in the series here (n.b. the last post in the series will be published on September 22).


By Jessica Chan, Rights Management Specialist at the Copyright Resources Center, The Ohio State University Libraries