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Public Domain Notices: A Good Idea?

In the course of my work of maintaining the Lost Docs Blog, I came across the following publication:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. After an [suicide] Attempt: A Guide for Taking Care of Yourself After Your Treatment in the Emergency Department. (SMA 08-4355; CMHS-SVP06-0157), Rockville, MD:
Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006. Reprinted 2009.

I noticed it had this public domain notice that I’ve seen on some government publications:

Public Domain Notice
All material appearing in this publication is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission from SAMHSA. Citation of the source is appreciated. This publication may not be reproduced or distributed for a fee without the specific, written authorization of the Office of Communications, SAMHSA, HHS.

As a general rule, publications produced by the federal government are in the public domain and copyright free. There are exceptions that you can read about in our online library.

It is a fact that not enough people realize the public domain nature of most government materials and so my reaction to this notice was initially very positive. I instinctively like the idea of labeling govdocs as public domain so that people and organizations (Google, I’m talking to you!) would feel free to reuse and remix without fear of consequences and not lock up content not meant to be locked up.

On the other hand, if only a handful of agencies use such notices for public education, it is conceivable that an environment would be created where only govdocs with public domain notices would be treated as public domain. I’m not sure if that’s a danger, but I worry. The possible danger would be less if a public domain notice was required governmentwide.

What do you think? Are public domain notices on govdocs a good idea? Are they a good idea whether done governmentwide or by a few agencies? Would we be better off if there was a governmentwide policy to label the minority of copyrighted material in govdocs?

Note: Thanks to Vicki Tate for reporting this document to GPO and sending a copy of her receipt to the Lost Docs blog.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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