The Public Domain and Google’s US Government Search Engine

Anyone working with public domain materials for any length of time knows that the U.S. Government is a treasure trove of materials that can be used without restrictions. Within its web sites (and physical archives) you can find books, photographs, films, software, demographics databases and much more.

In fact, the vast majority of U.S. Government works have never been granted copyright protection and become part of the public domain the minute they are made available. That means that you get access to the very latest materials whereas with works that were protected by copyright, access to materials is generally restricted to works that are more than 40 years old.

But like all things, being publicly available does not always mean free.

For instance, certain materials may not be available for download from a government website in any format and the only way you can access these works is by purchasing a copy from the appropriate government agency. The fee is in most instances quite reasonable. But for some specialized databases and annual subscriptions, the fee can reach thousands of dollars.

But lets be honest… we all like getting things for free. And there is plenty of government material free for the taking.

The easiest way to seek out specific government works or categories of works is to know exactly where to go in the huge web of government web sites that exist. But since they are generally poorly organized and hard to navigate, most people taking this route find that it ends in frustration and a waste of time. Fortunately, there is usually a quicker solution.

That solution is Google’s U.S. Government Search at (You can learn more about it here:

This portion of Google’s search engine examines only government websites that it has indexed and can be an enormously powerful way to troll through government websites finding works that are just right for your latest project.

So next time you are thinking of using government works in your project, pop on over to Google’s U.S. Government search to find your materials. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you can easily find.

A few caveats you need to be aware of:

1) Not all U.S. Government works are copyright free. Some works were produced by contractors and have copyright protection or partial copyright protection. In almost all instances, the government will spell out if this is the case. But if in doubt, just ask them. They will answer you.

2) Google’s U.S. Government search also returns works from state government entities. I wish it didn’t but it does. This complicates the search results a bit because state created works are generally protected by copyright. It doesn’t mean you can’t use them. You would need to seek permission to use those works.

3) Because of the state results, be prepared to scan several pages of results from your search and to conduct search refinements to exhaustively identify all the works you have available for your project.

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