NASA has taken some pretty awesome pictures over the years. In order to capture these amazing photos, NASA has spent billions of dollars on telescopes, robotic missions, and manned missions. Because it was so expensive to produce these photos, it must be pretty expensive for private individuals to use them, right? Companies like Universal sue downloaders in order to defend their copyrights in box-office failurs like Waterworld, after all, so NASA must be trying to protect their investment too! Wrong.
NASA is a government agency, and new material they create, like photos, which would be subject to copyright protection if made by a group like Universal, is explicitly excluded from copyright protection under the law. Specifically, 17 USC §105 states:
17 USC § 105. SUBJECT MATTER OF COPYRIGHT: UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT WORKS
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.
What that statute means is that anything copyrightable produced by employees or officers of the federal government that would be considered part of their job (for example, William Anders snapping pictures which orbiting the moon on Apollo 8) is public domain and you, citizen, are free to use it how you wish, without fear of the RIAA coming a knocking. Please, note however that this law only applies to the federal government, not states!
NASA actively encourages the public to use the images they have collected, but they do ask that you give them credit! They even have an an amazing online collection of the images they’re captured over the years. Check it out at nasaimages.org.
There are two important exceptions to free use of government created tangible works (another way of saying copyrightable): things created by government contractors and the logos and other symbols for various federal agencies.
Copyright protection arises when a creative work (pictures, writings, code, movies, etc) is put in a tangible medium. For example, a copyright arises as I am typing this post into my computer because this post is creative (fortunately for me, it doesn’t have to be particularly creative!) and it has been put into a tangible form because it was written onto my computer’s hard drive. I have a copyright to this post and I didnt even have to leave my desk!
If I was writing this post for NASA as part of a government contract I would have a copyright in the work, but it’s extremely probable that I would have certain obligations to share my work with NASA under Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) provisions contained in my contract with NASA. Nearly every contract between the federal government and a private contractor contains FAR provisions and one of the most popular provisions related to copyrighted works is FAR 52.227-14. This provision has many “moving parts” but the gist of it is that, as a contractor doing work for a government agency, I can assert my copyright in work I do under the contract as long as I grant the government “unlimited rights” in my work. These unlimited rights include allowing the government to use my work however they see fit and to give others permission to do the same.
Some original works, like the NASA meatball logo, are subject to protections under other intellectual property laws, like trademark laws! Trademark law prevents people from using the NASA logo as a sales tool for their products and services, unless they receive permission from NASA first. In fact, NASA has drawn up a set of advertising guidelines to streamline the process of determining if you can use their logo, their old logo (the “worm”), and the NASA seal.
For additional information about the history of NASA’s logos, seals, and symbols start here.
Image source credit: NASA