For example, if a US citizen used part of the Constitution in an essay would that person not need to cite it?

  • 1
    Not sure what you are asking but you should cite everything even if you wrote it.
    – Joe W
    Apr 2, 2021 at 3:38
  • I’m asking if US citizens own the Constitution and if that means they don’t need to cite it if they use text from it.
    – The Mamba
    Apr 2, 2021 at 3:41
  • 7
    I'm not sure why those two questions would be related. As Joe says, even if you own a document, you generally cite it for the benefit of your readers. The ownership question is potentially interesting. Maybe there's a difference between specific written copies (e.g. in museums or government buildings) and the content itself?
    – JJJ
    Apr 2, 2021 at 3:45
  • 1
    I think it's far too broad to ask if someone needs to cite it or risk an accusation of plagiarism. Using a sentence or two within an academic paper, where the audience will very likely know the entire document by heart wouldn't necessarily require that the quote be cited. But that's a simple question of etiquette and academic standards. It's not a political or even legal question. Apr 2, 2021 at 7:36
  • 2
    I disagree that this is on-topic for this SE. Perhaps Academia might be appropriate if the question is about plagiarism. Perhaps Law might be appropriate if the question is about copyright law. But this is not about politics or political systems. Just because the OP has chosen the US constitution as the example does not make it so.
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 2, 2021 at 14:09

1 Answer 1


Statutorily, any copyrightable work created by a federal employee as part of their job is in the public domain, so the constitution is in the public domain (not to mention that most of it was created long enough ago that a copyright would have expired).

But you're confusing plagiarism and copyright violation which are two different things. Plagiarism is representing someone else's work as your own. If I present, say, "I wandered lonely as a cloud" as my own work, that's plagiarism, even though the copyright on Wordsworth's poem is long expired. The penalties for plagiarism are generally extra-legal. In academic settings, it might mean getting a failing grade on the work in question or possibly the whole class, or in extreme cases, even expulsion from the school. In working settings, it might mean losing one's job or facing other sanctions from the employer such as being denied a promotion or facing a demotion or pay cut. In publishing, cases of plagiarism often result in the withdrawal of the published work and the return of any moneys paid for publication. (Although in most cases, the punishment may be symbolic or non-existent. I remember being in the room when two professors were discussing whether it was worth the trouble to deal with an obvious case of plagiarism in a student's paper.)

Copyright violation, on the other hand, is a legal matter, and refers to unauthorized use/duplication of the work. If I reproduce a work under copyright without permission (or a significant fraction of that work), it doesn't matter if I attribute it to the original creator or not, it's still a legal violation and I can be sued.

That said, other than the fact that the work of federal employees as part of their job being statutorily public domain, most of this is a legal or moral question rather than a political one. Also, given that I'm not a lawyer and I've not read in depth on copyright law in 30-some-odd years, I wouldn't take this post as a guide for any sort of legal questions.

  • The constitution was not exactly written by the federal government.
    – phoog
    Apr 5, 2021 at 4:02
  • @phoog As I mentioned in my post, even if it were subject to copyright, most of the text of the constitution is old enough that it would have been put into the public domain by virtue of the copyright having expired. All amendments were written by federal employees in the course of their job and therefore are statutorily in the public domain.
    – Don Hosek
    Apr 5, 2021 at 14:13
  • 1
    Well of course the text is too old for copyright. But the status of the constitutional convention is interesting from an academic point of view. I couldn't find anything to suggest that it was constituted as a federal body, but since the federal government was a lot weaker in those days I'm not certain that the distinction would have been relevant. Anyway, US copyright law was in its infancy in the late 18th century, and US copyright required a copyright notice until well into the 20th century, so it's safe to say that the constitution was never protected by copyright, authorship aside.
    – phoog
    Apr 5, 2021 at 15:45
  • By the way, it's "officer or employee," which includes members of congress, judges, the president, the cabinet, and many other appointees (who are not generally speaking employees but are of course officers).
    – phoog
    Apr 5, 2021 at 15:48

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