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Public Domain Riches: Repackage Free Government Material Into Saleable Information Products

by Marcia Yudkin

If you’ve heard of the possibility of creating an information product using copyright-free government material, you may be unsure of the potential to get users to pay for something that you accessed without charge. Here are answers to the questions many people have about repackaging and selling public domain information created by the U.S. government, along with three examples to get your creative juices flowing.

Common Concerns about Repurposing and Selling Public Domain Information

1. What is public domain government information and what do you have the right to do with it?

When the U.S. government creates or commissions information, it is paid for by federal taxes and therefore owned by the taxpayers. Almost all the time, U.S. government information is in the public domain and not copyrighted. (Exceptions to this rule carry a copyright notice.) This means that anyone has the right to republish that information however they please, as if they had researched and created it themselves.

You have the right to publish it exactly as is, change the format, chop it into smaller pieces, rewrite it, combine it with other public domain or proprietary information or translate it – all without charge and without needing to request permission.

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2. If information is available free online, why would people pay for it? 

Many people do not have the time or skills to find free information online. If you can bring information of interest to them to their attention, they may be as willing to pay for it as they do for other books, recordings, etc. This is especially true if you package the material attractively, conveniently and understandably.

3. Do you need to tell people where the material came from?

That’s up to you. In some cases, telling them of the government origin of the information greatly boosts its credibility. Sometimes you may want to let buyers know that the content is available for free but in hard-to-find or hard-to-use locations. The three examples below make it clear why shoppers might not care about that at all.

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Repurposing Three Types of Government Information

1. Foreign language courses. Over the years, the U.S. government has financed the creation of self-study courses in dozens of languages for the use of government personnel headed overseas. Many private companies now sell courses based on the original recordings and printed study guides. Whereas originally they were distributed on cassette with an accompanying paperback book, now you can purchase the very same courses as downloads or as a colorfully packaged CD/book set.

There is still room for innovation in this arena. You could reorganize the lessons, deliver them by subscription, sell them on a preloaded audio player, make them part of a paid membership site, provide them as a free bonus for travel products, add images to transform them into movies, change the content so it’s especially suitable for children, etc.

2. Consumer guides. Government agencies are continually churning out information guides, as you can see by browsing at A saleable product idea would start with identifying an information need, then compiling, changing or otherwise packaging available public domain information to meet that need.

For example, millions of people are concerned about how to protect themselves against identity theft. The government offers numerous web-based and downloadable resources that you could quickly compile into a publication geared to a specific audience, such as “Travel Smart! 101 Ways to Avoid Identity Theft When You Travel” or “The Busy Mom’s Guide to Identity Theft.”

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3. Census data. Historic census data – charts of facts and statistics about people in the United States - is in the public domain. But the average person doesn’t know how or where to find the data or how to understand it correctly. Imagine a particular need for census data, then provide a paid service to give people precisely what they need.

For instance, people researching their ancestors are often looking for long-ago census information. You could create a subscription service for easy-to-use access to census data that is online, charge by the hour for research into the free census data, charge per page of census information delivered in response to a customer inquiry or compile selected information about a certain city or town into a downloadable or print volume.

Although it may take imagination and marketing skill to make these ideas work, you can certainly use free government information as the basis for profitable information products. Good luck!

Copyright 2008 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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