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Rocky Mountain Research Station
Natural Resources Res. Ctr.
2150 Centre Ave., Bldg. A
Fort Collins, CO 80526-2098

Telephone: 970-295-5000
Fax: 970-295-5959

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Copyright FAQ

Are Station serial publications copyrighted?

No. They are written or funded by the U.S. Government and so they are in the public domain and not subject to copyright. Copyright simply does not exist for Government publications, so they cannot be copyrighted.

Are all journal articles copyrighted?

If an article is written or co-authored by a U.S. Government employee on official time, then it is in the public domain and not subject to copyright.

Are publications written by cooperators copyrighted?

It depends on the initial cooperative agreement. Regardless, if the Government is the funding source for the research, then the Government has an unlimited “license” to use it. If the author does claim copyright, then the Government would need to include a copyright notice that limits the rights of someone else using the published work. For example, the Government can post the publication in TreeSearch but a non-Federal entity cannot download it from TreeSearch to put it on a non-Federal Web site.

May other outlets copy material verbatim from Government-authored publications without acknowledging the source?

Yes, but this could be interpreted as unprofessional or unethical conduct.

May I “borrow” a piece of text, verbatim, from a copyrighted publication?

It depends. When in doubt, obtain permission. Reproducing material without permission is allowable sometimes because there are limitations to copyright law. The principle of “fair use,” referring to material reproduced without permission, limits the exclusive rights of copyright owners. It’s often difficult to distinguish “fair use” from copyright infringement because there are no specific boundaries. However, the Copyright Act lists the following four factors to help assess “fair use”:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

NOTE: Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

What’s a general rule of thumb for quoting text without permission?

Maybe 100 words maximum from an average journal article, cited. However, this word count could be too high if the text quoted is a “substantiality of the portion” (such as an abstract; see #3 above).

NOTE: Copyright protects only the particular, tangible expression of ideas--not the ideas themselves.

May I adapt or modify a table or figure from a copyrighted publication?

If you don’t obtain permission to reprint something, then you must modify it substantially. The publication manual for the American Psychological Association (used by many journals and other publishers) states: “Authors must obtain permission to reproduce or adapt all or part of a table (or figure) from a copyrighted source. ... If you have any doubt about the policy of the copyright holder, you should request permission.” How much do you have to modify something without infringing copyright? It can be vague: Even the U.S. Copyright Office itself states that it can “neither determine if a certain use may be considered ‘fair’ nor advise on possible copyright violations. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney” (

May I “borrow” or adapt material from another Government publication?

Yes. It is in the public domain. Be sure to cite the source and give an appropriate level of acknowledgement to the author(s) you are quoting.

May I copy and paste photos from any Web site?

It depends. Copyright law protects Web material in the same way it protects other publications. Check to see who holds the copyright first—even with Government publications. Sometimes the Government may have paid a private photographer (the copyright holder) for only the first or second rights to the photographs, and so the photos may not be copied from the Web document without permission. Examples of Web sites with copyright-free photos are, and, and

How do I obtain permission?

Use the one-page form provided (PDF | DOC). Usually an e-mail or fax can take care of it quickly.


U.S. Copyright Office:

CENDI, a Federal Scientific and Technical Information Managers Group: Clarification of use of public domain and copyrighted material produced by or for the Forest Service is contained in: Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright: A Template for the Promotion of Awareness among CENDI Agency Staff, CENDI/2000-3 ( Below are two of the relevant sections:

3.2.3 May the Government reproduce and disseminate U.S. Government works, such as journal articles or conference papers, which have been first published or disseminated by the private sector?

Assuming the article is written by a government employee as part of his or her official duties and the publisher does not add original, copyright protected content, then the government may reproduce and disseminate an exact copy of the published work either in paper or digital form. (Matthew Bender & Co. v. West Publishing Co., 70 158 F.3d 674 (2d Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 119 S. Ct. 2039 (1999)).

4.1  If a Work Was Created Under a Government Contract, Who Holds the Copyright?

Unlike works of the U.S. Government, works produced by contractors under government contracts are protected under U.S. Copyright Law. (See Schnapper v. Foley, 667 F.2d 102 (D.C. Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 948 (1982).) … the Government has unlimited rights in all data first produced in the performance of a contract and all data delivered under a contract … the Government, and others acting on its behalf, are granted a license to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute, perform and display the copyrighted work.

USDA Forest Service - Rocky Mountain Research Station Publications
Last Modified:  Monday, 25 August 2008 at 11:41:03 EDT

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