One major difference in copyright laws between the US and the UK is the scope of copyright on works created by government employees. In the US, nearly every government work enters the public domain by default, while in the UK all government works are protected under "crown copyright" for 50 years.

But what's the rationale for having a copyright on the state's works? Didn't the taxpayers already pay for it through their taxes? I'm mostly interested in the UK government's official position on this question.

  • This is by no means a full answer, but doesn't the state also have a duty to recover value from works like ordinance survey maps, rather than just handing them away for free? Not that your position isn't valid, but there are others.
    – origimbo
    May 15, 2017 at 3:05
  • @origimbo: Such maps have inherent value, since they allow some economic transactions (think real estate) to happen more easily than they otherwise might. Making them freely available seems like an obvious win for the economy.
    – Kevin
    May 15, 2017 at 3:31
  • @Kevin, given that such maps would be duplicated in China, or distributed by google, wouldn't that be a win for someone else's economy?
    – origimbo
    May 15, 2017 at 3:47
  • 2
    @origimbo: Whose economy is going to benefit from a planning map of some part of the UK?
    – Kevin
    May 15, 2017 at 4:06
  • 1
    @Relaxed I've heard from numerous researches that the lack of state copyright in the US makes it a lot easier to conduct certain kinds of research there, e.g. mineralogy and other geo sciences. May 15, 2017 at 6:06

1 Answer 1


There are at least two justifications for a Crown Copyright.

First, the benefit from use of materials subject to Crown Copyright is very unevenly distributed. So requiring those who use Crown Copyright material commercially to pay licensing fees prevents the U.K. government from using taxes collected from the general public rather evenly to subsidize the few who benefit commercially from this work. In this respect, a Crown Copyright is similar to users fees imposes for all manner of other government services (e.g. subway fares).

Second, a Crown Copyright affords the U.K. a significant degree of control over how economically and academically important information is used, for example, by denying licenses to academic crackpots. This is a kind of distinction that the U.S. political ethos of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is much more uncomfortable with government considering.

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