US government work

/ 12 May 2009

Today the White House Flickr photostream acquired a new permissions designation. The White House had been posting its pictures with a Creative Commons license, but someone must have caught on to the fact that in order to attach a CC license to this material one had to have copyright of the material. As a work of the US government, the White House photos by definition cannot be under copyright. Instead, these works have now been designated “United States Government Work” and linked to the appropriate law.

What I don’t understand is why these works didn’t use Flickr’s already existent “Public Domain” designation. Works not under copyright are in the public domain, after all.

Furthermore, the White House has added this paragraph of legalese to each photo’s description:

This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Once the White House lets a photo like this out into the open it is fair game. Technically, even before it lets it out into the open it is fair game (we would just have to use a freedom of information claim to get it). I’m not sure what the purpose of this ugly statement is other than to muddy the waters. There is plenty of case law about using the president’s image in advertising, why reiterate that on each photo? This is unseemly. And even if they did want it reiterated, why not link the designation to a more informative statement than the law? That law is pretty hard to read, and it will leave most people reading way more than the single sentence that is relevant.


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