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H H S Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Health Information Technology and Quality

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What is Public Domain Software?

Public domain software is any software that is not copyrighted and not controlled or owned by any particular individual or entity.  Public Domain software is freely available to use, and is usually well developed.  However, the free availability of the software for use necessitates the development of a support community for the product including business, technical and end user groups.  These communities can be created by commercial vendors or by open source development, but this typically involves licensing.

When Public Domain software is available for anyone to modify or redistribute, it is considered "copylefted".  In some cases, a program may be freely available to use in the public domain but some copies or modified versions of the program may not be free, and this is considered "noncopylefted" software.  If an executable program is available in the public domain but the source code is not available, the software is not considered to be free.  Free software requires accessibility of the source code, and most Public Domain Software is not free.  Thus, Public Domain software is freely available, but can be repackaged and sold or modified and licensed as propriety or open source software.  In comparison, most free software is copyrighted and the authors have given legal permission for everyone to use it for free.

Generally, the creation of public domain software requires taking legal steps to disclaim the copyright.  Under the copyright laws of the United States (17 U.S.C 105), all works created by the U.S. government must be released into the public domain.  Therefore, the Veterans Administration's EHR, VistA , is obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act and the source code is part of the public domain.  However, VistA is licensed under WorldVistA as open source.

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