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On the copyright path


October 14, 2012 by csukach

Extreme close up of a dog's face

Since 1976, U.S. copyright laws have automatically protected images like this unless the photographer specifically states otherwise. (Chris Sukach/Full Sail University)

From SOPA and PIPA to Google’s fight with U.S. publishers and authors, copyright law and its interpretation have provided fodder for great debate.

One area of U.S. copyright law that’s not as hotly contested is that of government works and public domain.

Section 105 of U.S. Code 17 states, “Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.”

For military photographers working for the U.S. Air Force, that means any images captured on the job are public domain material and anyone can use those photos.

Extreme close up of a hand on a B-52H throttle

Because this image was shot by a U.S. Air Force photographer on duty using government equipment, the photo is public domain. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz/U.S. Air Force)

“It’s really amazing—the public domain is—because it’s all about sharing,” says photographer Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz.  “It’s not about who’s getting paid.”

Boitz says he enjoys seeing his imagery used for other purposes like calendars and pamphlets.

“It doesn’t have to be a military photo,” Boitz explains.  “It can be a beautiful photo.  It can be a humanitarian photo.  It can be something that really just shows something amazing happening.  And it just so happens that I don’t get paid for it because it is a public domain photo, but seeing that it’s out there and it’s being used as something, that really is awesome.”

Even though Air Force photographers’ skills are their own, the products they create for the government with those skills are not.

Wide shot of Airmen walking from a helicopter

Because this image was shot with government equipment on government time, it’s public domain. (Chief Master Sgt. John Zincone/U.S. Air Force)

“From the get-go, I think that whatever I shoot when I’m on duty with government stuff is not my personal property—it’s the property of the government,” says photographer Chief Master Sgt. John Zincone.

Still, with the increase of smaller, more portable and capable personal camera equipment, deciding which shots belong to the government and which are personal can become a blurrier question.

“If I’m in Afghanistan on a PRT and I’ve got my government camera with me but I’ve also got my [personal] iPhone camera with me and I shoot a couple with that, whose pictures are those—mine or the government’s?” asks Zincone rhetorically.  “I mean, I’m only there because [the government] put me there.  The fact that I used my camera versus the government camera—I would never be there if it wasn’t for doing that mission.”

Wide shot of a dog walking on a path

Since 1976, by default an image like this is copyrighted material thanks to U.S. copyright laws. (Chris Sukach/Full Sail University)

Even though imagery shot by Air Force photographers is public domain, Boitz says it’s still nice to get recognized in a caption for his work.

“I really do enjoy seeing my name under there,” says Boitz.  “I guess it gives me some sort of satisfaction that my name was tagged along with it, but really just seeing something captured and where it’s gone really is what makes it fun.”


  1. #1 Fan says:

    Great shots…important issue…awesome!

  2. Shawndra says:

    The pictures really went well with the article and I enjoyed learning about privacy from another stand point like the U.S Air Force.

  3. csukach says:

    Thanks for the feedback RJ!

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